In his NEC faculty recital Sunday night at Jordan Hall, master pianist and teacher Meng-Chieh Liu got to show off technically—or at least chose to show a lesser-known side of himself. His unusual program focused entirely on Hungarian-flavored works, most of them seldom heard and many of them big, difficult, congested and, in his hands, impressively fast and loud and clean. But sometimes the shape and inflection of dancelike arcs were missing in action, or were pushed—their rubatos quite unidiomatic.
Brahms’s Variations on a Hungarian Song (Opus 21 No. 2) made for hard starting. Written when the 24-year-old was a few years past a concert tour of Hungary with a native violinist, it’s dense in the way the young composer often tends toward and, worse, is packed with irregular rhythms underneath busy runs surrounded by fanfares. The pianist barely reached lilt.
Bartok’s 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs comprise charmingly dissonant short tunes, bundled into two parts, lamented and dancing, and further divisible into four movements, from dolorous to frantic, with many detours and asides. One movement sings the blues. To a once callow youth who had to essay some of Bartok’s later Out of Doors set, it seemed fairly inconsequential, although Liu played them fastidiously and made much of little.
A few of the Brahms Hungarian Dances remain popular today (and were enough so back when to earn the composer good money). We know some from the four-hand originals and gruesomely unlively orchestrations. Liu played Books 1 (first half) and 2 (second half). How often do all 10 get performed together? Book 1 was mad with swirl, richly orchestral, but democratically voiced (little melody leading, some interior lines brought out) and consequently all sort of unrelievedly samy, and even a little stiff. I’m not sure Liu feels real affinity for these sorts of rhythms, although technical perfection ever reigned. A piano maven in the audience noted that after the break, Book 2 smiled more genially, as Liu generously sized his grander stabbings and rubato, not to mention the cross-rhythms of no. 8.
Bartok’s short and strange Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs is markedly different from the 15 songs, unfolky, with spiky variety, forced exploration of dissonance (perhaps selfconsciously dissonant would be apter: movement six features one hand on white keys, the other on black). Overall it sounded dilutedly harsh, like lesser Stravinsky, and at some remove from the partial dedicatee Debussy. Liu played with more color and touch than the composer.
Almost hidden within this evening’s odd, wide-ranging sampler, Schubert’s short Hungarian Melody D.817, a gem of serious beautify, relaxed into the still small center of the recital. Its tempo too was a little pushed, its sorrows unsavored. Liu may have sensed that also, as he repeated the piece for his final encore (for himself, he told us), when, with no rhythmic pushing whatsoever, the composer’s usual major-minor achings were spoken reflectively and urgently. (Quoth the maven: “Blessed Relief.”)
The large balance of the evening consisted, of course, of Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies: No. 13 as the official closer, and Nos. 10 and 15 for the first encores. For some reason—I bet partly to show his superhuman-technique students that he can keep up just fine, thank you very much—Liu chose the fun, vulgar embellishments of Arcadi Volodos and Horowitz. With little musical improvement other than causing jaws to drop even further as fingers fly and swarm, they clog almost every measure of Liszt’s already busy and exciting pages, which mostly are vulgar enough. Sometimes details are cleverly, comically brought forward, plus there are doublings and wannabe counterpoint and other ginormous emphases, but most of these must make sound within clots. Liu dispatched everything magisterially, albeit with insufficient dynamic range at the quiet end maybe, and generally curt rubato. To my ear Liu left them unsculpted and undifferentiated, becoming like the old Saul Steinberg New Yorker cartoon.
Yet from this statement event we now know that there must be nothing Meng-Chieh Liu cannot do at the keyboard.