Eighteen-year-old-pianist J. J. Jun Li Bui, sixth prize winner at last year’s Chopin Competition, got the 15-part Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts Festival underway in great style last night at NEC’s Williams Hall. Bui’s reserved stage persona gives little indication of his fabulous, fearless technique and original mind. The demanding recital of Chopin, Debussy, and Schubert revealed a fully formed artist. How can an undergraduate, who is currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree at Oberlin Conservatory, sound so mature? Maybe his estimable teacher Dang Thai Son can tell us. See BMInt review of the latter HERE.
Bui’s all-Chopin, competition-ready first half, seemingly featured only one piece he had played last year in Warsaw, the beloved Ballade No. 1 in G Minor op 23. His brooding yet expectant opening octaves announced an expanding of the universe, so that the subsequent tune appeared almost as the first human gesture. Such a metaphysical take is only possible from one without physical limitations. In the nine-minute span, Bui embraced life’s storms and consolations with chivalrous bearing and noble tone. His rubati always returned what they borrowed. His tone never turned harsh (until the second encore), even as the frenzies heaped up to FFF. Toward the conclusion, the excitable accelerando retained both detail and sweep back to the mists of creation. His final scamper to Elysium ended with those startling parallel and contrary scales in octaves which, expiring in an elegant big bang, anticipated the last work of the evening, Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy.
In the opening Polonaise in B-flat Minor, Op. Posth, Bui demonstrated with warm and generous tones that a serious artist had taken the helm. His flexibility of rhythm and gorgeous inflections, always tempered with a weight of seriousness, revealed an inner light. His detailed method, with perfectly judged chord weightings and surprising but agreeable hesitations felt entirely unmannered, despite the considerable details of execution.
Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61, in which weight and grace alternated as tragedy and consolation, never felt episodic, Bui’s shining legato and transparent sustaining allowed for the fantastic elements to reach signal affirmation. His conversational approach allowed mysterioso scales to retain tension, yet the quieter moments never went slack or lacked for expectation.
The set of four Mazurkas Op. 33 came across with suspense, in artfully delaying gratifications, pearly pianissimos, wistful waltzing, originality of lilt, and especially, luminous singing tone.
Debussy warned pianists in 1915 that his Etudes raised the prevailing technical stakes. Now, though most conservatory students can manage them, audiences still may dismiss them as fascinating finger exercises to solve intellectual and digital problems. Of course Bui solved all Debussy’s challenges with ease, but one wonders if the composer cared whether anyone listened. Of Bui’s renditions of numbers 7-12 I noted: exotic colorations, puckish impetuosity, washes of elegance, flawless Scarbo-like repeated notes taking flight in orderly flocks, brilliant underlining of harmonic complexities and breathtaking resolutions of suspensions, dignified and translucent arpeggios (so many), brief instances of FF within a culture of delicacy.
Bui brought Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy to glorious life. In lesser hands it can sound relentless, but Bui’s astonishingly varied chord weighting and tempo fluctuations made the repetitive figures sound ever-fresh and compelling. When Schubert begins to quote the namesake song, Bui made wonderfully manifest the master’s ability to smile through torment. Bui conveyed both the sadness and joy (though you could not see it in his face). We loved his artfully rolled chords. The epic presto transformed struggle into lyrical repose. The big fugue moved well with voices massively well-defined. Bui’s intense characterization of the Wanderer allowed for no mistaking how this work inspired the Liszt Sonata.
To the ensuing cheers Bui responded with a ravishingly relaxed and ur-patient take on Ungeduldig (Impatiently) from Schumann’s Davidsbündler Tänze. Another round of bravos elicited a decidedly loud and fast no. 24 of Chopin’s Preludes.
The series concludes on August 27th when Channing Yu, conductor leads the Mercury Orchestra in Beethoven, with winner of the 2022 Fou Ts’ong International Concerto Competition playing the Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor’. Click HERE for the complete calendar.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer