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Bruce Liu With Celebrity Series Of Boston Review: A Young Pianist For The 21st Century

Photo of Bruce Liu.
Photo of Bruce Liu. By Courtesy of Christopher Koestlin / Bruce Liu
By Lara R. Tan, Contributing Writer

Bruce Liu recently made his debut under the Celebrity Series of Boston, at New England Conservatory’s iconic Jordan Hall. The 26-year-old pianist, who first skyrocketed to fame by winning the first prize in the 18th Chopin Piano Competition, presented an intimate evening of music to the rapturous Boston crowd.

Liu opened his recital with six selected short works by French late-Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, and proved himself more than adept at finessing this forgotten composer’s work. Despite playing a piece originally written for the harpsichord rather than the modern piano, Liu skillfully replicated the silvery tone of the works’ original instrumentation. Liu began with “Les Tendres Plaintes” (The Tender Complaints): Composed in the rondo format, the melancholic theme was elucidated beautifully despite its homophonic setting, and both dynamics and ornamentations were deftly controlled.

Arguably, the hall’s acoustics were not the most conducive to Liu’s presentation of these short, intimate works. His rendition occasionally seemed to lack metronomic precision and crystal-clear articulation, partly due to the cavernous, elliptical architecture of Jordan Hall.

However, such considerations could not dull Liu’s artistry. Next, he presented “Les Cyclopes” Menuets I and II from Suite in G Major, and one of Rameau’s most famous works, “Les Sauvages” from Suite in G Major, originally from his opera “Les Indes Galantes.” Liu handled the phrasing and fluctuations in tempo of “Les Sauvages” sensitively, leaning into its harmonic uncertainties and declamatory pomp.

His next piece, “La Poule,” was also a fascinating display of virtuosity, Liu bringing a dogged determination and focus to the seemingly trivial subject matter of a barnyard hen clucking and pecking at its feed. Liu’s extraordinarily light yet commanding touch brought out even the minutest note values, convincingly embodying the idiosyncrasy of one of nature’s most overlooked specimens.

After a tournée through the French Baroque, arguably the most anticipated part of Liu’s program arrived: Frédéric Chopin’s Variations on “Là ci darem la mano,” a duet originally from Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni.” Written in 1827 with orchestral accompaniment when the composer was just 17, the piece led Liu to unanimous victory in the Chopin competition just three years ago. From the opening notes of the introduction, it was evident the piece had been solidified in Liu’s muscle memory as he masterfully drew out Chopin’s five-minute preliminary flight into the lyricism and suaveness of the opera’s title character. The achingly soft touch of his right hand breezed through Chopin’s nocturne-like improvisations, creating a self-assured dreamscape that dissolved into the main theme after a suspenseful wait. The joy on Liu’s face was obvious as he tackled the unprecedented complexity of the early composition, displaying keen understanding of the bel canto voicing tradition, finesse in the bravura that would come to characterize Chopin’s later etudes (Op. 10 and 25), and versatility in articulating all of Chopin’s various subsequent genres in a single work.

After a brief intermission, Liu commenced the second part of his programme: Maurice Ravel’s “Miroirs.” The work features impressions of a diverse array of subjects: nocturnal moths, downcast birds, a boat on the ocean, a clown’s morning song,and a valley full of resounding bells. Liu’s performance of the latter three movements stood out in particular. He sensitively displayed the whimsical vicissitudes of open water in the third movement, plumbing the depths of the lower range of the keyboard and capturing the sparkling luminosity of the keyboard’s upper register.

The fourth movement — an homage to Ravel’s Basque origins from his mother — Liu rendered with the light yet dramatic pathos of a troubadour’s lovelorn serenade. The last movement’s open sonority and octave chords offered a moment of calm in an otherwise hectic programme.

The last item on his program was worth the entire evening’s wait: Franz Liszt’s “Reminiscences de Don Juan de Mozart.” Eclipsing Chopin’s juvenile work in its maturity and pathos, Liu did justice to the operatic source material, from the sinister chromaticism of the Commendatore’s entrance to the vivacity of Don Juan’s pastoral romp with Zerlina. Liu picked ambitious yet well-executed tempos and tackled the score with unremitting energy, earning him a prompt standing ovation.

He then rounded out the evening with two relatively light encores: Alexander Siloti’s B minor arrangement of a Bach E minor prelude and Chopin’s enchanting “Minute Waltz.” Both were appreciated palate cleansers at the end of a hefty programme: If Siloti’s arrangement seemed repetitive and meandering, Liu’s charming rendition of the Minute Waltz compensated with an unexpected level of lyricism and magic.

Asserting himself with infectious energy, serious virtuosity, and profound sensitivity on the Boston stage, Liu proved himself as a worthy young pianist of the 21st century.

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