Pianist Kate Liu made her much anticipated recital debut yesterday. In case you haven’t heard, she was the bronze-medal winner of the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, as well as the Polish Radio prize for best performance of a mazurka. Those who came expecting an avalanche of Chopin may have been disappointed at the programme, but it has been almost four years since the Chopin competition, and we should not be surprised that any artist would want to expand her repertoire. She had certainly not chosen a programme for the faint-hearted, but one that challenged every aspect of her musical and pianistic abilities.
Liu began her performance with Brahms’ Ballades, Op. 10. These are unusual for Brahms’ early music because unlike the sonatas or variations, these are not virtuosic works by any means, but almost foreshadow those wonderful late opuses that Brahms was to write at the end of his life. Liu played these pieces almost like a series of ruminations, looking very much inwardly at the music. To be sure, there was drama when drama was called for, such as in the shattering climax of the Ballade in D minor, Op. 10, No. 1. At the return of the A section, Liu played the left hand triplets that conjured the disquieting nature of the original ballad, evoking in my mind an impression of one injured.
I was very taken with the beauty of her sound, and how she voiced the octaves and chords at the beginning of the Ballade in D major, Op. 10, No. 2. There may be those who wish for greater drama in the Allegro non troppo section, but an examination of the score reveals that Brahms only wrote a single, very brief fortissimo indication. Even in the relatively stormier Ballade in B minor, Op. 10, No. 3, the dynamic indications range from pianississimo (ppp) to forte only, with many more indications in the softer dynamic ranges. In the beautiful Ballade in B major, Op. 10, No. 4, with the descending figures in the opening foreshadowing the late Intermezzo in B minor, Op, 119, No. 1, Liu really achieved a sense of repose. In the Piu Lento section, there was real depth of sound, and a feeling of absolute stillness. She certainly paid much more than lip service to Brahms’ indication of Col intimissimo sentimento. These are perhaps very personal interpretations to these early Brahms works. That said, Liu was doing no more than working (hard) to bring out what the composer asks for, a really remarkable achievement for someone so young.
Of all of Chopin’s works, I believe that the mazurkas invite the greatest range of interpretative views. The inevitable question is whether the artist penetrated the composer’s soul with these, Chopin’s most personal and original works. The answer here was and is a resounding yes. Kate Liu painted Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor, Op. 59, No. 1, on a large canvas. She played this large-scale miniature in a spacious manner, and lavished her attention to the many pauses and spaces within the music. At times, it almost sounded as if she was improvising. Her playing of the Mazurka in A-flat, Op. 59, No. 2, brought out the elegance of this music, and her phrasing here was truly magical. She brought us back to the world of the Polish countryside with her idiomatic performance of the Mazurka in F-sharp minor, Op. 59, No. 3. I also liked her slightly wistful approach to the F-sharp major section.
Two short works concluded the first half of Liu’s recital. Liu is not a pianist with a big sound. That said, her playing of Rachmaninoff’s Etude-tableaux in E-flat minor, Op. 39, No. 5 and Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 10 in F minor(“Appassionata”) revealed the richness of the sound she evoked from the piano, a sound that is never ugly or percussive. Certainly these works, which most pianists would use as a mere vehicle to demonstrate his or her technical abilities, made me feel that she had thought through these works carefully. In the Liszt especially, there was an easy elegance that I found appealing. It is interesting that it was in these relatively virtuosic works that showed her to be very much a thinking musician.
The second half of the recital was taken up with one very large-scale work – Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8, the last of the three so-called “war sonatas”. Liu successfully navigated through the bleak soundscape of the first movement, giving it a sense of coherence and totality. The second movement (Andante sognando) once again highlighted the beauty of her sound as well as the lyricism of her playing. Liu more than rose to the technical challenges laid down by the composer in the third movement, and her blistering, almost orchestral, playing of the third movement left the piano limp and the audience breathless. We would of course forgive her for not wanting to play any encore after such a performance.
Sunday’s recital confirmed my view that Kate Liu is not “just” another fire-breathing virtuoso with steel fingers, but a musician and artist with a carefully considered view to whatever she is playing. She is of course only at the outset of her artistic journey. For now, I only hope that she is “done” with the competition circuit, because I believe that what she needs is to strike out on her own path and find her place within the artistic firmament.