The Singaporean-American pianist Kate Liu dispensed a colorful set of musical portraits, featuring nocturnes, waltzes, and mazurkas by Chopin alongside Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 8. In her concert on behalf of the Foundation for Chinese Performing arts, Liu captivated Saturday’s Jordan Hall audience with her sensitive, passionate play, from the softest, most intimate whispers to the boldest outcries.
Deep silence ensued as Liu sat still at the piano, seemingly contemplating the set of Chopin miniatures which would constitute the first half to come. Then she lifted her hands, and dark, lonely arpeggios surfaced. Beginning with the Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27 No. 1, a bold piece to start the evening, Liu performed with great care, allowing ample time for the nocturne to breathe, while maintaining an ongoing musical flow. In the middle section, the music grew from a murmur into a torrent, waves of passion crashing and falling. Finally, Liu brought us back to the return of the slow section, as comforting thirds provided a peaceful ending.
The flowing first-half set progressed through keys and energies. Chopin’s Mazurka in C-sharp Minor, Op. 50 No. 3 came to us in a twinkling stream of flurrying notes falling smoothly into the air. Liu traveled through a variety of affects: vigorous outbursts, tender interjections, lively dances. She pieced together a mosaic of gleaming smiles and wistful sighs within Chopin’s harmonic twists and turns, punctuated by a decisive ending.
She dispatched the next three numbers almost attacca, adding to the set’s dramatic cohesion. In the Waltz in D-flat Major, Op. 70 No. 3, Liu portrayed a sort of muted sweetness, carried by expertly executed legato melodies. By contrast, the Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 64 No. 3, spun with a more vivacious energy while still finding moments of sadness and stateliness. Liu played the Mazurka in F-sharp Minor, Op. 59 No. 3, with poise and flair, and an almost unforgiving nature; but tender, loving passages appeared as well. After a pause, Liu gave us the Waltz in B Minor, Op. 69 No. 2. Her take on the waltz was somewhat slower than one might expect; along with this poignant layer of melancholy, she also turned to moments of sunlight and warmth. Finally, the Mazurka in F Minor, Op. 68 No. 4 offered another introverted scene full of subtle, delicate melodies, as if a cloudy garden of inward sorrows.
The Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27 No. 2 closed the set. Peaceful, shining arpeggios emerged, genial and welcoming as opposed to those that opened the concert. Liu showed great attention to the inner voices, and the cadenza-like measure towards the end sparkled. The nocturne ended in repose, drifting off into the almost painful silence in which the concert had begun.
Throughout this first half, Liu had showed an extraordinary dedication and care for these Chopin miniatures; it almost felt as if we were witnessing something extremely private and intimate. A piano teacher once told me: among Chopin’s oeuvre, there are dances, and remembrances of dances. Both of these elements ― things themselves, and the memories of them ― lived vividly in Liu’s sensitive traversals, which transfixed the audience of Jordan Hall in rapt attention.
Before embarking on Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major, Op. 84, Liu again paused dramatically. She began with grandeur and gravitas, leaning into the thorny and prickly harmonies and contours along the way. The opening movement of the sonata contemplated an inner conflict, starkly contrasting between harsh chords and amorphous dreams. In the development section, Liu executed the bubbling, foreboding runs virtuosic ally, evincing a crazed, angular insistence, almost bestial ― all the way to the quietest moments, near silence, almost nothing. A dreadfully cataclysmic climax slowly gave way to the return of the expositional material, all the more haunted in the wake of such an outpouring of intensity. Islands of neuroses and paranoias floated in misty streams of obscurity. A sudden resolution in a subdued B-flat major closed the first movement.
In the second movement, Liu brought out a warm procession, if troubled by Prokofiev’s uncanny dissonances. She set the audience adrift in the music’s smooth contours, ebbing and flowing, on the edge of the awake and the asleep, lulling us into an unexpectedly gentle conclusion.
The playful and scherzo-like final movement discoursed in a perpetual motion common to Prokofiev’s more upbeat music. Liu’s fingers flew precisely through frenetic passages, running through woodpecker-like obsession to a skipping waltz. She showed a menacing unstoppability in a left-hand octave ostinato, growing from uneasiness to panicked terror. The frantic energy continued, flowing into expansive arpeggios and octaves and rolling into a fiery, resolute, demonic finish.
Spurred on by enthusiastic applause, Liu encored with “Im ruhigen Tempo,” the first movement of Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe, one of his final compositions. A solemn chorale conjured something hallowed, an epilogue, a postscript. A thank you, perhaps. The effect was particularly striking after the chaos of the Prokofiev sonata. Perhaps it was fitting that the concert ended with Liu’s strength in quietude, a subtle and delicate hymn born into the air through her expressively polyphonic touch.
In every moment Kate Liu spent on stage, the music lived through each note and each silence (measured at 30 decibels!). Liu’s sense of musical time often allowed for long pauses to breathe and reckon, adding to the pensive atmosphere. Something about her presence, her focus, her honesty compelled the audience to listen in to her musical mind. Out of the monochrome keys, through the frame of Chopin and Prokofiev’s pens, a menagerie of multicolored soundworlds arose into the air, inviting us into Kate Liu’s expansive, poignant, empathetic musicality.