the very crowded field of outstanding young pianists today (and getting more
crowded every year), there have been many recent performances that succeed in
impressing us with his or her pianistic prowess. Far more rare is a young
artist who moves us, not with technical wizardry (which he has plenty of), but
with depth, with artistry and musicality.
an event took place in Vancouver yesterday, with the Canadian debut of Kuok-Wai
Lio, under the auspices of the Vancouver Recital Society. Mr. Lio played an
artistically and technically demanding programme of Janáček,
Schubert, and Schumann. I do not recall being so moved by a young pianist’s
playing since the first time I heard Ingrid Fliter many years back.
Mr. Lio began his recital daringly, with a performance of Leoš
Janáček’s four-movement piano cycle, In the Mists. Not being intimately acquainted with the piece, I can
only guess that the composer
named his work a “piano cycle” instead of “sonata” so that he didn’t feel bound
by any constraints of musical structure. Indeed the piece sounded very
free-flowing in its ideas, very colourful and beautiful, and highly
imaginative. I did detect the influence of other composers, most notably in his
use of harmony, which somehow reminded me of the harmonies Chopin used in some
of his later Mazurkas.
Lio appears to be a quiet and unassuming young man, but from the first notes,
Lio mesmerized me with his playing. There is a luminous quality to the
sound he makes on the piano. Within minutes, I realized that I was in the
presence of a young master. The playing commanded our complete attention
without clamoring for it. Lio, I believe, is very much “his own man” in his
Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D. 935, made up the final work of the first half.
Unlike many of today’s young keyboard titans, Lio took the time for the music
to develop. At the same time, the music never dragged, but flowed beautifully
and logically. The many transitions, in mood and in tempo, within each of the
four pieces were masterfully handled. Lio’s interpretation of these very
familiar pieces did not remind me of anyone else’s playing. His ideas were
completely original, but never idiosyncratic, and they made complete musical
sense. I believe Lio is one of those
rare artists who draw our attention to the music, and not to him or his
playing of Robert Schumann’s elusive Davidsbündlertänze,
Op. 6, once again reinforced my impression that we were in the presence of an
extremely rare talent. One of Schumann’s lesser played works, the piece has an
inner beauty that makes it very difficult to bring across. I believe it was
Busoni who said that a musician must, during a performance, lose and find
himself at the same time. From beginning to end, Lio was completely absorbed in
the shifting moods of Schumann’s sound world, a man completely lost within the
music, but at the same time seeing clearly the way before him. His playing of
the work’s two final sections (Wie aus der
Ferne; Nicht schnell) was meltingly and heartbreakingly beautiful.
repeated curtain calls from an enthusiastic audience, Lio rewarded us with the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, giving us a tantalizing taste of what a
performance of the complete work would be like.
amount of designer clothing or brand name runners can give young artists depth
and maturity. This young pianist already possesses such qualities in abundance.
In one article I read about Lio, conductor Donato Cabera, who worked with him, called him “an old soul”.
his performance yesterday, that is exactly how I would describe Kuok-Wai Lio.
Benedetto Lupo made his Vancouver recital debut yesterday (he had previously
appeared with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra) in a daring programme of Brahms
and Tchaikovsky. I say daring because even though both composers are often
audience’s favourites, the works Mr. Lupo programmed could hardly have
qualified as crowd pleasers.
the end of his life, Johannes Brahms wrote four sets of short piano pieces. For
me, these pieces are really a distillation and culmination of Brahms‘s entire
career as a composer. For me, these are
some of the most intimate pieces of music Brahms ever wrote, and even a great
Brahms pianist like Arthur Rubinstein, who made beautiful recordings of this
music, avoided playing them in recitals. Benedetto Lupo certainly set himself a
challenge when he programmed both the three pieces in Op. 117 and the seven
pieces in Op. 116 in the first half of his recital programme.
top of the varying technical challenges in each of the pieces, there is, in the
piano music of Brahms, a fine balance between the horizontal and the vertical
aspects of the music. In addition to moving the music forward, the artist must
bring clarity to the multi-layered texture of the score. As conductor and
pianist André Previn said, there is, in Brahms,
always a beautiful melody struggling to get out.
lavished each of these pieces with a beautiful sound at the piano, and exhibited
a fine sense of direction in the music. He managed to highlight the many layers
within the music, while never making the music sound heavy or lacking in
forward motion. The near-capacity audience rewarded the pianist with the
greatest gift a musician could ask for – silence.
was very grateful for Benedetto Lupo, both for programming Tchaikovsky’s Grand Piano Sonata in G Major, Op. 37,
and for speaking to the audience before the performance. While I know of the
work’s existence, as well as of recordings by pianists such as Richter, I was
hearing the work for the first time yesterday. Lupo pointed out that the sonata
was written at about the same time as the composer’s fourth symphony, and therefore
the element of fate plays a large part in both works, thus, in the pianist’s
own words, the “obsessiveness” in many
of the themes. He also shared with the audience the observation that the
beautiful second subject in the first movement is actually based on the Dies Irae, from the Catholic Latin Mass
for the Dead.
the march-like first subject in the first movement, to the ferociously
difficult final movement, the sonata could not have found a greater champion
than Lupo. Under the wrong hands, this work can sound like repetitive and meandering.
The young pianist played the entire work with an incredible sense of purpose
and unity, and with an utter neglect for the fearsome pianistic challenges lay
down by the composer. Under his hands, the logic as well as originality of this
unfamiliar (to me) work by a very familiar composer became quite apparent.
this already crowded field of outstanding pianists, Benedetto Lupo is an artist
that has much to offer, and one that I would love to hear again. Lupo’s
programme reminded me once again the vastness of the piano literature, and that
there are still relatively unknown masterpieces in the pianistic canon waiting for
both artists and audience to discover.
I finished listening to
Artur Schnabel’s recording of Beethoven’s thirty two piano sonatas. No, it was not
some macho thing where I did it in one sitting. Over the last few weeks, I have
been listening to one or two sonatas a day, and the experience has a
Today, when there are dozens
of complete recordings of these iconic works and with pianists rushing to
recording them once they reached their 18th birthday, it is
difficult to imagine the significance and impact those first recordings had.
In Harold Schonberg’s
entertaining (but not always accurate) book, The Great Pianists, the writer devoted an entire chapter to Artur
Schnabel (even Arthur Rubinstein had to share a chapter with his archrival and
sometime friend Vladimir Horowitz), and entitled it “The Man Who Invented
It took Schnabel several
years, from 1931 to 1935, to record all the sonatas. Listening to them again today, the
performances are, to me, just as valid, moving and, for lack of a better word,
right. I once heard the comment that piano playing today has become either
anonymous or idiosyncratic. Schnabel’s playing is neither. And hearing these
recordings remind me how standardized, even generic, music making has become
Unlike other Beethoven
“specialists” of his time, pianists like Wilhelm Backhaus, Rudolf Serkin, and
Wilhelm Kempff, to name just a few, pianists who carry the torch of the
Germanic tradition of piano playing, Schnabel never hesitated to take chances
in his playing. In many of the faster movements, Schnabel played with an
absolute feeling of reckless abandon, making the performance extremely
thrilling. Don’t get me wrong, Schnabel was very much interested in the
details, as well as the structural integrity of the music, but he was not an
artist who saw only the trees and not the forest. It is music-making that was,
and is, spontaneous and very much alive. Hearing these performances, I couldn’t
help but feel that Beethoven himself must have played in a similar way.
recordings were made in the days when editing was not possible, and much has
been made of Schnabel’s many wrong notes in his recordings (and in his live performances
as well). Schnabel had as remarkable a technique as any of his colleagues, then
and now, but he was simply not interested in merely playing all the correct
Note-perfect performances, a
norm in our times, can be detrimental to the recreation of great music. Pianist
Murray Perahia reminds us that perfection is not only an impossible but dangerous pursuit.
In Arthur Rubinstein’s
memoirs, My Many Years, the pianist
was quite dismissive of Schnabel’s playing. This is unfortunate, because there
are remarkable similarities between the playing of these two great artists –
the same generous, unforced tone at the piano, and a remarkably similar
approach to the score. It is interesting to note that the recordings of
Rubinstein, the Romantic pianist par-excellence,
sounds more restrained, even careful, and more “Classical”, in his Beethoven
recordings than Schnabel, who is remembered as a great classicist. It reminds us
once again that great artists can and should never be categorized. As much as
Schnabel was a thinking pianist, he was after all a product of the 19th
century. In his playing, he was not a rigid tempo player. He was never hesitant
to give the music breathing space, or shifting the tempo within a movement. For
me, Schnabel’s music-making is closer to that of a Fürtwangler
than a Toscinini.
musicians – not just pianists - can do worse than to consult and enjoy Schnabel’s
Beethoven recordings. It is not so much a matter of imitating the way he
played, but it is a glimpse, a looking back, into a different approach to art,
and to music.
More than just a
historical document, Schnabel’s recording of the Beethoven sonatas – from the
opening upward “rocket” motive in the F Minor sonata to the ethereal final
pages of the C Minor, Op. 111 - is part of our heritage as musicians, not to
mention some of the most exalted and inspired music-making ever put on vinyl.