IN: Reviews

Torrents of Piano Color


Meng-Chieh Liu (file photo)

Meng-Chieh Liu opened his Jan 17th Jordan Hall piano recital with Busoni’s transcription of J. S. Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major, a thriller in the both the original organ version and the piano transcription. Both make enormous technical and interpretive demands. The unexpected opening (a C7 arpeggio on the weakest part of the first beat) jolts listeners out of their chairs. Liu’s sparkling touch in the runs which followed lent the main body of the movement an improvisatory quality. His take on Bach’s long solo in the Toccata warmly evoked the sound of the organ pedals. The Adagio, with its long solo line punctuated by dotted rhythms and underpinned by a walking bass summons up the Baroque orchestral suite. Again Liu’s summoned up the multiple voices and textures of the organ. The Adagio ended in a dissonant Grave of tragedy and grief. Then, in another enormous contrast Liu brought a light-hearted joy to the dance like Fugue which (listener beware!) ended in a torrent of sound and fury.

Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude from Harmonies poétiques et religieuse opens with a 9 bar lyrical phrase, to which a 10 bar phrase answers. Thus, instability is built into the piece and may be behind the longing that it communicates. The first section, entirely in F-sharp major witnesses much repetition and variation of the melody (Liszt might even be accused of schmalz in one or two instances). In order to generate continued interest, it falls to the pianist to execute the composer’s textural demands, which Liu accomplished easily. With consistent phrasing throughout, whether in left hand or right, the main melody came across articulately through its many variations and permutations. The fluid character of the accompaniment also maintained consistency throughout. Liu’s ability to juggle multiple textural elements allowed him great dynamic liberty, thus again, imparting continued interest, where in fact, Liszt might be criticized for over repetition of his admittedly lyrical lines. The short motif of the Andante section in D major comes in chains of falling thirds and provides contrast with the preceding denser material. 

Liu sounded playful in this section, apparently relishing the change of mood. As the Bénédiction draws to a conclusion, the main theme disintegrates while accompanied by a delicate line of arpeggios. Again, Liu’s versatility easily conquered the required musical demands.

Rachmaninoff’s transcriptions for piano of Fritz Kreisler’s violin/piano duos, Liebesleid and Liebesfreud followed. Both pieces start off simply enough but contain middle sections with unusual harmonies and serious technical demands. In Liu’s charming take they served as palette cleansers after the sumptuousness of the Bach/Busoni and the Liszt.

After intermission, Liu delivered the four Chopin Ballades effortlessly. As with the Bach, the listener experienced constantly changing moods. The two contrasting themes of Ballade No 1, majestic and touching, came through beautifully. The main theme of No. 2, a Siciliano on a repeated C, floated serenely through Jordan Hall. In the second ballade the role of the left hand, outlining harmonies in octaves, reminded this listener of the bass in the Bach/Busoni. Again, Ching’s warm sound imparted the needed color. The broken C octaves which introduce the second theme of the 3rd Ballade remained suspended for an extra moment. The counterpoint, cross rhythms and interwoven themes of the 4th completed the drama of the second half. Liu imbued the turbulent, furious, virtuosic sections of each Ballade with improvisatory qualities not unlike his traversal of the Bach/Busoni. The hallmarks of Liu’s playing, which include clarity and precision, clarified and highlighted the parallels.

Liu’s encore, Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 27 No. 2, left us with an elegant and tranquil coda to a wonderful evening.

Retired medical biology researcher Dinah Bodkin is a serious amateur pianist and mother of Groupmuse founder Sam Bodkin.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. This is such an informative review, which I really appreciate as I had to stay home with what I thought was the flu, but was Covid. Liu is one of the truly GREAT pianists. It broke my heart not to hear him. Lucky you!

    Comment by Susan Miron — January 19, 2024 at 3:22 pm

  2. Thanks Susan. Yes, what a privilege.

    Comment by Dinah K Bodkin — January 19, 2024 at 3:57 pm

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