Bruce Liu, the young pianist from Montreal who captured the hearts of the Varsovian audience at the 18th International Chopin Competition, made his Vancouver recital debut in two recitals this past weekend. Hearing the same programme two days in a row, in different venues, and with two beautiful but very different Steinway pianos, make for some interesting comparison.
The excellent acoustics of the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts gave great warmth to the sound of the piano. At the Orpheum Theatre, in spite of its size, the Steinway there had greater projection and a bigger sound, thereby allowing the music to create a greater visceral impact and giving it more clarity of texture. I am grateful to have heard this young artist twice in such different surroundings, and I wouldn’t want to have to choose one from the other.
It is evident from the first piece on the programme, Chopin’s ethereal Nocturne in C-sharp minor (Op. 27, No. 1) that Liu understands the shaping and projection of phrases in this difficult work. From the mysterious opening with the widely spaced broken chords of the left hand, to the high drama of the almost mazurka-like middle section, and back to the slightly unsettling beauty of the opening theme, Liu made the music float. Phrases melt from one to the next, and I was stunned by his ravishing pianissimos.
In my conversation with him, Liu said that he is interested in playing some of the lesser played youthful works by Chopin. His affinity for the more overtly virtuosic early works of the composer was evident in his performance of the Rondo a la mazur in F major, Op. 5. His playing of this youthful work was utterly filled with charm as well as a youthful, carefree sense of playfulness. Moreover, he captured the elusive rhythmic hurdles of the mazurka, to the manner born, as the saying goes.
In the larger works, like the Ballade in F major, Op. 38 and the Ballade in A-flat major, Op. 47, Liu was clearly at home with these larger-scale compositions of Chopin. In time, perhaps he will create greater contrast between the calm of the opening of the F major Ballade and the storm of the B section. For me, the highlight of the recital’s first half was the Ballade in A-flat major, where the sheer beauty of Liu’s sound on the Steinway was truly something to behold. He played this A-flat Ballade with breathtaking lightness and a disarming gracefulness. It was truly a remarkable achievement for so young an artist.
In Liu’s performance of the Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35, he brought to the work a sense of organic totality, from the high drama of the opening to the cataclysmic end of the final movement. In the Doppio movimento section of the first movement, there was a sense of desperation in Liu’s playing of the unsettling right-hand theme. Liu’s effortless virtuosity in the Scherzo was truly astounding. In the middle section of the Scherzo, he not only played the rocking theme with great beauty, but he made us aware of the intricacies of the composer’s writing for the left hand. The iconic funeral march was played with an overwhelming sense of stillness, making it truly a frighteningly relentless march of death. In the final movement, I “saw” with my ears the phantasmagoric and spookiness of the wind blowing across the deserted graveyard. A stunning performance indeed.
Liu’s ability to create a beautiful – not a superficial kind of beauty, but one with great substance – was evident in his playing of the Andante spianato, the last work on the official programme. It was utterly, meltingly beautiful, with one note dissolving into the next in the long-breathed melodic line. The fanfare that opens the Grande Polonaise was played with a great sense of occasion and rhythmic acuity. Because the theme of the Polonaise returns so often, this work can sometimes feel long, under the wrong hands. Not so with Bruce Liu, who managed to infused each return of the theme with different inflections and colours. His virtuosity towers over the blistering technical and musical demands laid down by the composer.
In both recitals, the audience clamored for more at the end of Liu’s performance. The artist obliged with two encores on the first day, and three after his second recital – the Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth and the Etude in G-flat major, Op. 10, No. 5 (“Black key”), which he played on both days, and one of the three Ecossaises the composer wrote. I am certain the audience would have been happy with many more.
All in all, a highly successful debut by a major young artist at the beginning of what promises to be a brilliant career. At this time, I only wish him continuing artistic and musical development, and that he would successfully navigate through the challenges and temptations of sudden fame. It would now be very interesting to hear Bruce Liu in other repertoire. From the evidence of this weekend’s recital, there is no reason to doubt that this young man can become one of the great artists of the next generation.
I wish him Godspeed in his artistic and musical journey.