Wholly satisfactory piano recitals are rare, but on Monday night at BU, Hong Xu, a most uncommon pianist, delivered such a one. The piano department chair at Wuhan Conservatory in China and prizewinner at various competitions, Xu dropped by the School of Music Concert Hall out of the blue, it seemed. He offered a substantial helping of Mozart and Liszt, not a long program, not showy, not really anything but unexceptionable in every respect—utterly solid. I hope the late-30s artist returns soon, and when he does I urge you go hear him. No-nonsense, unflashy, with a model’s looks, Hong Xu is the real deal.
Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat Major K.281, the composer still a teen, received a confident, crisp reading, maybe on the fleet side. Demanding and even a little show-offy, it was, in Xu’s hands, nicely sectioned and plain to follow developmentally. Fifteen years later, Mozart concluded writing sonatas with the muscular D-major K.576, which Xu rendered with high spirits modulated by an extraordinary middle Adagio whose venturesome harmonic arguments are laid out simply, in lovely polyphony. Even with its student-ish beginning, the whole piece feels to me haunted slightly by the ghost of Bach. Again the structure, both of each movement and at large, got manifested in more orderly fashion than one usually hears. Perhaps that is because the definite, unconfused Xu takes this music straighter, more seriously yet less ponderously, than other pianists. More Mozart would have been welcome.
The second half was Liszt’s. Harder it can be, or at least rarer, than you might think to let his melodies emerge and sing out among, if not over, the mass of tracery and filigree. Hong Xu made this achievement sound almost easy, or at least sound like other, less ornate Romantic piano music, again and again shaping the most complicated and abstruse Liszt into close-to-vocal comprehension. Xu keeps his ear right upon the heart of it; we don’t get caught up in the surrounding swirl, as happens with some other Lisztians. At the same time nothing was submerged: a Romantic-piano maven in attendance twice murmured about “the layers, the layers … delineation and arc”.
The Liszt half proceeded thoughtfully in reverse chronological order. I appreciated the decadelong winding backward from the difficult, Debussy-presaging textures of Les cloches de Genève (the last piece from Années de pèlerinage 1, Suisse) through Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses) to the exploding wedding cake of Réminiscences de Norma de Bellini in order to conclude with pretty power.
For each tuneful section of Les cloches de Genève the tone-painting composer in Xu’s hands fully became, as Liszt put it citing Byron, “Portion of that around me”. Dissonances hovered hypnotically in the air from Xu’s carefully blurring pedaling with lingering liftoffs.
Liszt’s religious impulses made for struggle elsewhere, but the ravishing rippling and ringing octaves of Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude speak more to ecstatic gratitude pouring forth from one not at all dumbstruck at God’s creation. It’s too much to say this is the most perfectly shaped of Liszt’s piano works, but Xu made the case with fine balances and finer detail throughout each of its parts.
The second Norma Fantasy presented in as many weeks wrapped the evening, and all I could think was that the unshowy Hong Xu really does get Liszt’s ways and means, his high-showman methods, more directly and more effectively, with more shapeliness, than more famous seekers after the piano spotlight.
David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.