Monday, November 18, 2013

A Young Old Soul

In 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.

Such 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.

Kuok-Wai 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 musical ideas.

Franz 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 personality.

Lio’s 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. 

After 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.

No 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”.

Hearing his performance yesterday, that is exactly how I would describe Kuok-Wai Lio.

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