IN: Reviews

Schumann’s Many Loves


Kuok-Wai Lio performed an all-Schumann concert comprising works on composers, literature, children, and a woman in the latest Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts event on Saturday. Lio has an astounding resume. The Macau native is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, recipient of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, career advancement awards and scholarships, and studied under Gabriel Kwok, Gary Graffman, Claude Frank, Peter Frankl, Boris Berman, Jack Winerock, among others. He was invited by Andras Schiff to take part in many masterclasses in Europe and by Leon Fleisher to attend a mentorship program. He performed at the Vancouver Schubertiade alongside Jonathan Biss and Inon Barnatan, and was chosen to step in for the legendary Radu Lupu in New York, to critical acclaim. Lio has performed as a soloist with orchestras worldwide.

What a shame then that so many of the seats at Jordan Hall were empty, but Yuja Wang was the big event across the street at Symphony Hall that evening. It was also Boston Marathon weekend, when many sport fans flock to Boston, while Bostonians leave the city for a 3-day weekend elsewhere to avoid the invading hordes and traffic.

Hailed as “a musician’s musician” by the Vancouver Sun, Kuok-Wai Lio gave an exquisite performance: sensitive, thoughtful, innovative, with lightning-fast fingers and astonishing touch control.

Of course he made exquisite choices: Schumann’s Opus 15, 16 and 17 (Kinderszenen, Kreisleriana and the Fantasie in C Major), represent the pinnacle of the composer’s pianistic works. Written within the same prolific 1834-37 time, Opus 13, 9 and 6 (Symphonic Etudes, Carnaval and Davidsbündlertänze), which occupy much of the heights of Schumann’s inspiration, no doubt took fire from his ardent love and admiration of Clara Wieck, who would become his wife in 1840, one day before her 21st birthday.

These sets remain wildly popular to this day, witness performances: Isata Kanneh-Mason kicked off the Celebrity series season with Kinderszenen, in March William Wolfram played the Opus 17th Fantasy at Boston Conservatory, Kyra Zhao played Carnaval in a recital, Jonathan Senik play the Symphonic Etudes in Jonathan Biss’s NEC masterclass. Upcoming on April 21st, Roberto Poli will play Kreisleriana, and on April 23rd Eduardus Halim will play Davidsbündlertänze at Boston Conservatory.

In the Kinderszenen, Lio showed that less is more. The 15 pages of this composition fall mainly in the range, only eight measures are marked ff, and Lio followed the composer’s instructions. He filled his interpretation with great love, sensitivity and nuance, an adult looking back at the magic and innocence of childhood. These are, for the most part, well-behaved children. Lio treated Kinderszenen as a set, not individual pieces, one scene dissolving seamlessly into the next with wonderful fluidity and cohesion. A day in the life of children, we enter the foreign land of childhood via a lullaby reminiscent of a music box, going on to hear a tall tale, from G Major to D Major, and staying in D Major for a game of tag, a child begging for sweets, and then much happiness, ice cream and even a balloon in hand, Glückes genug an utterly buoyant piece.  The ascent to A Major marks the highlight of the day, an important event.  

Then we depart to F Major for the best-known composition of the set, Träumerei, as the kids lie on the lawn, daydreaming and watching the clouds, eventually heading home to rest Am Kamin, by the fireplace, to get warm, starting off precisely where Träumerei ends, just one octave higher, still in F Major. Rested, there follows a game of riding a hobby horse, the children imagining they are knights slaying dragons, which end in a loud crash as something breaks. In Fast zu Ernst (Almost too serious), tears are mopped up. Then follows the inevitable scary story time, as everyone heads upstairs to go to sleep. In Der Dichter Spricht (The Poet Speaks), the adult reflects on the day, returning home to the G Major key of the opening for the last two scenes. From the poet Wordsworth, he sets forth the romantic era view of childhood:

… trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy.

Following enthusiastic applause, Lio launched in what must be a terrifying moment for most pianists: the wild Äußerst bewegt opening of Kreisleriana, going from 0 to 60 mph, and Lio threw himself with wild abandon and flawless virtuosity into the tumultuous opening, especially emphasizing the LH, and the playful middle section always reminds me of Clara picking flowers. The eight movements are described in German mainly by their tempos. But if you don’t know the piece, it’s easy to get lost, as fast pieces encapsulate slow sections, and vice versa, reflecting Schumann’s Florestan and Eusebius personalities.

Kreisleriana is iconic, Schumann’s full genius on display, a piece of stunning beauty and variety. On YouTube, you can find countless performances by most of the great pianists. Loosely based on ETA Hoffman’s novels, it’s a fantastic journey. Literature greatly influenced Schumann’s compositions, in his words: “Every Composer is a poet, only at a higher level.” Of all his piano works, Kreisleriana was his favorite.

Schumann’s Fantasie is a sweeping outpouring of love.  It is generally understood to be for Clara, but the dedication was originally entitled Obolen auf Beethovens Monument: Ruinen, Trophäen, Palmen, Grosse Sonate f.d. Piano f. Für Beethovens Denkmal, a musical monument and fundraiser for erecting a statue to Beethoven. And Lio was able to find him in the Fantasie by observing a stricter tempo and capturing Beethoven’s power and percussive elements, so when the love declarations to Clara appear, they are that much more surprising and breath-taking. As she was forbitten by her father to see Schumann at this time, the work fittingly invokes the Beethoven motif An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved).

Schumann’s alter-ego of Florestan originated with the character with the same name from Beethoven’s Fidelio, lest there be any doubt, go to 3:10 min. of this aria [HERE]. In this scene, Florestan is imprisoned, as Schumann himself would be later when he was confined to a mental institution.

Lio’s artistry shone especially in the quiet moments of the Fantasie, with his exquisite and effortless shaping of the melodies, and in the ethereal tenderness of the 3rd movement. 

Taking his bows, he encored with a sublime rendition of the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which moved the audience to sighs and more enthusiastic applause.

Sibylle Barrasso is a long-time piano student of Robert Poli. She has played in piano competitions in Pickman Hall and Chicago, is on the board of directors of the Boston Piano Amateurs Association and has played for audiences in the Boston Symphony Cafe since 2010.



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