Ever since capturing the attention of the music world with her performance at the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Kate Liu has been very much in the thoughts of music and piano lovers the world over. Just as many in the piano world, I was concerned when she was forced to halt her performance activities because of a hand injury. I am happy that Kate Liu seems to be back, and in great form, as evident in her recent performance in Poland.
From the first notes of Händel’s Suite in E major, HWV 430, I was captivated by her sound, how she allows the sound to develop and envelop the space around her. She does not hesitate to use the pedal generously to play this music, and her playing, especially of the Praeludium, has a great deal of freedom and space. At the same time, I find the performance completely idiomatic. In the Courante, the music really floats and dances. In the famous Air and “Harmonious Blacksmith” variations, there is a sense of playfulness in the way she plays it, as well as a real organic connection between the theme and the variations. The fast-moving 3rd, 4th and 5th variations are simply exhilarating and breathtaking under her fingers.
I had the good fortune to hear her play Chopin’s Op. 59 mazurkas in her Vancouver recital. I believe her interpretation of these late masterpieces has matured. In the Mazurka in A minor, Op. 59, No. 1, she took time for the music to speak for itself, and she seems to play the work like reliving a dream. One of the remarkable things about Liu’s is that she draws the listener into the core of Chopin’s soul, and in the process reveals to us the deep sadness inherent in the music. I was deeply moved by her performance of the Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 59, No. 2. Her interpretation goes far beyond the outward charm of the music, and reveals the dignity and heartbreak of the music. Liu brings out the earthiness of the opening of the Mazurka in F-sharp minor, Op. 59, No. 3. I held my breath as I beheld the unbelievable beauty of the B section. Throughout the performance of these three works, I was completely captivated by her playing, and was absolutely drawn into Chopin’s emotional and sound world.
The second half of her recital, dedicated to the works of Robert Schumann, began with a moving rendition of the Arabesque in C major, Op. 18. Once again, my ears were captured by the depth and beauty of her sound, as well as the euphoniousness of her rendition of this charming work. As well, she brings out the unique and contrasting character of each section, as well as the dreamy nature of Schumann’s creativity. I find her playing of the work’s ending (Zum Schluss, Langsam) overwhelmingly beautiful.
The concert ended with an impassioned reading of the monumental Fantasy in C major, Op. 17. As in the Chopin, Liu completely draws the listener into Schumann’s inner world. Liu’s sound is now bigger and bolder since I last heard her and she is even more able to bring out the extremes in sound demanded for this music. Throughout the performance, I felt that Liu was someone who both lost herself in the music, but who also saw clearly the way before her. In the Im Legendenton section, her interpretation had a kind of dreamy, faraway (almost fairy tale) quality to it. The final Adagio, when the composer quotes from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, was emotionally shattering.
Liu observed Schumann’s mf marking in the beginning of the second movement, and let the music build. I also appreciate her pacing in this movement, and how she does not overplay the music, or uses it as a vehicle for her virtuosity. She acquitted herself brilliantly in the treacherous coda.
Once again, her musicality and artistry are evident with the profound and otherworldly beauty of the third movement. Liu plays this movement as one enormous buildup to the tremendous climax at the end. The quality of her pianissimo in the beginning of the A-flat major section is quite extraordinary. The final buildup – Nach und nach bewegter und schneller – was overwhelmingly emotional, and the Adagio in the final measures sounded like a closing benediction.
With Schumann’s Fantasy as well as the Kreisleriana, Op. 16, we feel the creativity of the composer operating at a fever pitch. Kate Liu’s artistry recreated for us this white heat of the composer’s creative genius with her rendition of the Fantasy. Even experiencing this concert online, one feels the audience in communion with the artist as she embarks upon this aesthetic experience.
In Schubert’s Ungarische Melodie, D. 817, which she played as an encore, Liu captured to perfection the shifting shades of light and darkness so inherent in Schubert’s music.
I do not believe that Kate Liu will ever become the kind of barnstorming, note-perfect pianist we see so much of today. As Theodor Leschetizky said to Arthur Schnabel, “You will never be a pianist; you are a musician”, Kate Liu is a musician and artist, with her own original and highly personal voice. We, the music lovers, wait with anticipation for the next chapter of her artistic journey.