IN: Reviews

Triumphs with Keyboard Innovators



Bruce Liu (Hilary Scott photo)

Bruce Liu delivered an exciting program of keyboard works spanning four centuries, tied together by each composer’s innovative expansions of the possible musical realms available for the keyboard. From start to finish, Liu knew exactly what he was doing. Every single note had a purpose. Nothing could have been glossed over or left out. He also paid a sort of deep tribute to the personal contribution of each composer, eschewing the temptation of adopting a distinctive “Bruce Liu” style for the greater purpose of bringing each composer’s individual genius to light. Aiming to enlighten rather than shine, Liu initiated us into thrilling bold new tonalities on Wednesday night in Ozawa Hall,

Liu started with the great visionary Rameau, revealing the full extent to which the composer, as Grove points out, composed for “an instrument of greater sustaining power and color than the harpsichord.” Interesting pedal work allowed Liu to infuse Les tendres plaintes with a hauntingly beautiful mixture of elegance and emotion, grace and depth, refinement and power. Of the six pieces that Liu selected, Les cyclopes stood out for the penetrating complexity of its action-packed, tempestuous search for an inaccessible binocular vision, reached only musically as a stereophonic perspective, raising the very question of sensorial interface and supersession. In a  gripping rendering of La Poule, Liu turned Rameau’s “earnest attempt to transcribe a sound of nature” (Grove) into something approaching Keats’s “negative capability,” developing the initial clucking motive into an investigation into the instinctive subjectivity of living organisms.

Beethoven’s innovation with Sonata 21 in C Major, Op. 53, Waldstein, is perhaps best described by Lewis Lockwood, who considers the substitution of the mysterious Introduzione for the original blander Andante to initiate the most significant change in the nature of the sonata. Liu indeed made the most of Beethoven’s radical move by turning the middle movement into an enigmatic liminal place of loss and longing, shifting the momentum onto the final movement.

Playing the initial Allegro con brio first movement with tremendous technical brilliance and without repeat, Liu created sweeping tidal waves of emotion and beauty, evoking volcanic eruptions of inspiration that ravish the artist as though from elsewhere, as elusive as they are dazzling. Against this background, Liu conveyed the middle movement as a veritable bereavement, a loss of dialogue with grace, a loss of the capacity to hear voices of alterity from on high, a sense of being forlorn, rejected back into the sole self, alone and one, cut off from lyricism as though from the very air that the artist breathes in order to live. Then with the concluding Rondo, inspiration returns, sparkling and radiant, flirtatious and abundant – Beauty as the promise of happiness! Liu did not shy away from rendering the final movement as a voluptuous and liberating lovemaking, artist and muse mingled through every sense in a joyous and fertile corps à corps, creating a new language out of ecstasy, half-human half-divine, with the artist emerging as hero, not unlike Jacob struggling with the Angel and bearing the holy scar to prove it.

Thank God for an intermission! We needed the vast leafy night of Tanglewood to reset us to ground zero for Liu’s all-embracing second half. He approached Chopin’s Trois nouvelles études with a resolve to show their musical creativity over and beyond their supposed aim of developing students’ facility. Liu turned the distinctly chromatic first étude in F minor into an intimate visitation, with polyrhythms jostling to reach the heart first and more intimately. He imbued the melodic chords of the second étude in A-flat major with a very special timbre verging on carillon. In the waltz-like third and last étude in D-flat major, Liu told a veritable story as two partners entered into the dance with some reluctance, then squabbled, then found a way to harmonize their differences as the spirit of the waltz won them over and swept them into the future.

Rachmaninoff performed Chopin’s Sonata No.2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35, with an acute hatred of Death as being that which marches us, bound and gagged, to annihilation, followed by cosmic oblivion and indifference. The problem with Rachmaninoff’s interpretation, however, is that he plays the reprise of the funeral march with great violence, in violation of Chopin’s marking, piano. As though he had pondered the question with every fiber of his youthful being, Liu decided on a dramatically different approach ― one that we had not heard before. Basically, Liu began the first movement with a feeling of awakening into danger and excitement (viz. Chateaubriand’s famous Romantic yearning in René: “Arise, desired storms!”). In the face of the violent and passionate first theme, the second theme beamed with a youthful ability to muster strength and courage through sheer love of life. In our youth, Death presents itself as Danger — as a thrilling opportunity to test one’s mettle and prove one’s valor! With the Scherzo, Liu turned more Faustian, evoking Mephistopheles, the trickster, the spirit of negation, against which mature human beings have to muster the resources to remain poised, directed, mutually caring and affirming (viz. W. H. Auden, “May I, beleaguered by the same negation and despair, show an affirming flame”.) Death, in our maturity, presents itself as discouragement, as the temptation to give up on all that requires nothing less than our whole life to preserve and keep afloat.

Liu’s innovative interpretation of the funeral march succeeded in motivating Chopin’s marking of “piano” at the return of the Marche funèbre. How? From the start, Liu imbued the march theme with nobility. Death gently coaxes us to accept the Inevitable (viz. Francis of Assisi, “Sister Bodily Death”). Liu surprisingly rendered the trio section not as a tender farewell to life, but rather as a profession of trust in the invisible future life beyond the darkness. What the soul presents to eternity as the body succumbs to death is its innocence, its moral radiance. Once this communion with Mystery is accomplished, Death returns with sorrowful compassion (piano), leading the now fully willing mortal human being into sublimity.  Indeed, far from interpreting the finale presto programmatically as ‘wind blowing over graves,” Liu magnificently imbued it with iridescent colors, as though operating a coincidence of opposites, a passing over into a realm that “passeth understanding.”

Plunging us back into the profane mess of living, Liu finished with Nikolai Girshevich Kapustin’s (1927-2020) delightful Variations, Op. 41. Using his own body language to enter into the spirit of modernism, Liu gave us a swinging and jazzy sound, marvelously transnational, cosmopolitan, playful, yet subtly dead serious about the here and now. Liu skillfully conveyed the quasi-mathematical precision of Kapustin’s “improv” sound, showing us a lean score etched in granite, rooted firmly in the fertile earth of self-doubt, but unbending to bullies, warmongers and hatemongers.

In response to warm acclaim, Liu returned to encore with Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp Minor, in a distinctly sober account. We thus ended with the spirit of summer, which we must love without clinging to it, much like the gorgeous but brief Eden of Tanglewood.

Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent book is “Suspicious Moderate” on the life and works of the 17th-century English Franciscan, Francis à Sancta Clara.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

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  1. Thanks for this imaginative and perceptive review. Liu truly played in service to the music and high ideals. Technically, I was astounded by his gradation of dynamics; seeming like 128 levels between ppp and fff, with enviably controlled (de)crescendos, along with independence of each melodic line. What a varied program too. And who couldn’t love his jaunty leap from the bench to plunk down the last one finger note in the jazzy Kapustin.

    Comment by Joseph Snodgrass — August 23, 2023 at 12:15 pm

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