Jian Liu’s First and Last Feast

16/06/2017

John Psathas, Jack Body, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms: Jian Liu (piano); The Old Library Music Centre, Whangarei, New Zealand, 11.6.2017. (PSe)

John Psathas – Sleeper
Jack Body – The Street where I Live
Beethoven – Sonata No.1 in E flat WoO 47 No.1; Six Bagatelles, Op.126
Chopin – Op. posth.; Mazurka Op.68 No.4
Brahms – Scherzo Op.4; Vier Klavierstücke Op.119

If I may dare to contradict Whangarei Music Society’s flyer, the idea of building a programme on composers’ first and last works is not unique. For instance, I remember a 1999 Huddersfield Recorded Music Society presentation entitled “Alpha and Omega” that employed the self-same idea. This doesn’t make the idea itself any the less neat, especially as Jian Liu has given it a cute little twist – prefacing the first and last solo piano works of three composers by two short Kiwi works, John Psathas’s first piano piece and Jack Body’s last.

Jian Liu has made a pan-global name for himself as a soloist, educator and chamber musician. He is a founder member of Te Kōkī Trio, who in 2015 gave Whangarei Music Society’s audience a night to remember (see review). Let’s make it clear that this solo performance didn’t have the electrifying impact of Te Kōkī Trio’s – and let’s make it equally clear that this was solely because the music, necessarily constrained by the theme, was less overtly spectacular.

Broadly – very broadly – speaking, you’d expect (well, I would!) a “first”, being the product of youth unsullied by sobering experience, to be relatively bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and a “last” (even though the composer might not have been aware of it), being the product of a life thoroughly sullied by sobering experience, to be relatively thoughtful and introspective. Of course, much of the intrigue in pairing “first and last” lies in weighing up the changes wrought by an intervening lifetime. However, there are other angles: for example you could ask, to what extent is the composer’s ultimate character evident from the outset?

First, though, there was that “asymmetrical pair”, included to cement Jian’s dedication of his programme “to the memory of Jack Brody” who, through three decades, educated and inspired innumerable musicians – Including Psathas. The title of the latter’s first piano piece, Sleepers, is intended, through its several meanings, to conjure both “dream” and “journey”. It features an incessant oscillation weaving around an extended, diffuse melody, occasionally with a syncopated edginess. Jian’s delicate touch, both light and fluid, allied to a strain-free dynamic range, readily evoked the requisite air of impressionistic mystery, to my mind making the most of a fairly slight piece.

Jack Brody’s last piano piece is also descriptive; this time literally so because the music accompanies and underpins a recording of the composer talking, often with wry humour, about The Street where I Live (the allusion to My Fair Lady is not entirely accidental). This must have involved some careful preparation, because the live pianist gets no cooperation from the recorded speaker.

There were moments where the piano obscured the voice, but synchronisation was well-nigh flawless. The music consists mainly of short spiky flourishes, somewhat redolent of, but far less po-faced than certain specimens of the “squeaky gate” school. If initially the angularity seemed daunting, the ear soon started picking up dryly witty snippets – and smiling at them almost as much as the words.

It was already apparent that Jian Liu is an artist both exceedingly capable and commendably undemonstrative. His minimal functional movements were – I was surprised to see – pretty much the same whether he’s dusting the keys or braying the hell out of them. Possibly as a consequence, his “tone” feels unusually consistent right through the dynamic range. Equally, his expressive gestures (like swaying) are utterly unexaggerated, happily bereft of any “operatic” over-emoting. Regarding the latter, I’m inclined to believe that, no matter how good a performance is with it, it’d be a sight better without. Jian, I’m glad to say, did nothing to confute that opinion.

His Beethoven “first and last” were captivating. He made no attempt to moderate the Mozartian provenance of the Sonata No.1 in E flat; if anything, the opposite applied. In the first movement he took Beethoven’s cantabile marking at face value, a wonderful pliability bringing out all the music’s cheerful warmth and sense of progression – and thereby throwing into sharp relief those sudden lurches and stabbing accents that owe nothing to Mozart. His treatment of the second movement strongly contrasted the ornate decoration that looked back with the bolder, sterner episodes that looked forward. In the vigorous, forceful finale, I could again feel a palpable tension between Mozart’s “ghost of Christmas past” and Beethoven’s “ghost of Christmas yet to come”, and was left with an overall appreciation of just how accomplished was Beethoven’s first foray.

I think that I’m as aware as anyone of how far Beethoven “travelled” in his tumultuous life. Nevertheless, immediately after hearing the Sonata, the Six Bagatelles, Op.126 came as a real shock, much more so than when heard in isolation. The immensely greater expressive range and intensity of argument, the irregular metrics and weird harmonies (et cetera), were all evoked clearly, directly and honestly by Jian. The third, feeling decidedly “other-worldly”, ill-prepared me for the fourth, spitting fusillades of furious sparks, and with a flowing ostinato that made Mozart seem like a relic of prehistory. And, what of the sixth, whose fiery presto endures for but a few brief bars at either end? It’s an astonishing utterance with which to close your book – and to end a recital’s first half.

Presenting Chopin’s Polonaise in B Flat at a not-too-quick but flexible tempo, with aristocratic elegance and high spirit, Jian made it a real dance and, more to the point, an exuberantly youthful dance, already bearing all the hallmarks that characterise  “Chopin”. The final Mazurka Op.68 No.4 bears the same hallmarks; really, all that’s changed is (for want of a better term) the composer’s attitude. The mazurka may be a dance, but this Mazurka is modulated by chromatic inflection and illuminated by a sky of ever-shifting, mostly murky moods: as it sounded in Jian’s hands, it’s a dance much mellowed by melancholy.

Jian’s final first and last were those of Brahms. If the Scherzo Op.4 is haunted by Beethoven’s ghost, that ghost is virtually obliterated by Brahms’s trademark; that massive, majestic, striding quality with which – judging by this piece – he must have been born. Jian certainly had its measure; projecting it boldly, with a fluidity and dynamism that swept me for one off my feet. Equally alert was he to another trademark: the contrasting arrhythmic hesitancies of the Trio section.

As the Vier Klavierstücke Op.119 pieces unfold, Brahms’s case emerges as a simple matter of maturity, growth of his style and imaginative depth; there seems to be no significant withdrawal into the “relatively thoughtful and introspective”. Jian confidently elicited the tremendous variety of these pieces, nursing the tender lyricism of the first and amplifying the contrast between the second’s bolder yet nervous main subject and its robustly Romantic counter-subject.

The third rolled happily along, punctuated by jagged interjections and finely articulated, playful ripples. The fourth was exceedingly forceful and thrusting, its initial march-like tendencies developing into something more rhythmically subtle, and even becoming whimsical (giving me the impression of a “prancing pony”). Yet, Jian kept something up his sleeve, to unleash a massive and sublimely aggressive conclusion.

This was a wonderfully edifying recital, on account of both the provocative theme and the sheer entertainment value. However, there was more: Jian sent us out into the afternoon sunshine with a tasty lollipop – Jian Zhong Wang’s arrangement of a folksong, Liu Yang River, which originated in the same province as Mao-Tse Tung. The deliciously cute and catchy Chinese melody was festooned with rich ripplings and some extravagant runs that (to Jian’s later amusement) put me in mind of Liberace. Next time, maybe we’ll get the candelabra and glittery jacket? Hmm. Perhaps not.

Paul Serotsky

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