Breathless and breathtaking: Bruce Liu at the Edinburgh International Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2022 [10] – Rameau, Chopin, Ravel, Liszt: Bruce Liu (piano). Queen’s Hall, 22.8.2022, (SRT)

Bruce Liu at Queen’s Hall © Jessica Shurte

Rameau – Selection of pieces
Chopin – Variations on Là ci darem la mano
Ravel – Miroirs
Liszt – Réminiscences de Don Juan

Bruce Liu was catapulted to international stardom when he won the 2021 Chopin competition, and he has hardly stopped for breath since. That’s kind-of appropriate, though: breathless is one word I would choose for his Edinburgh International Festival debut recital. Breathtaking is another.

There is something extraordinary, like a privilege, in watching a performer in their element doing what they do at their best. That is really what the Edinburgh festivals exist for, and Bruce Liu delivered that in spades this morning, both in terms of breathtaking virtuosity and in focused musicality.

His concert was neatly programmed, with two items of French music followed by two meditations on Mozart’s Don Giovanni. He played the Rameau selection with simplicity of focus, the Menuets sounding light and slightly frothy, while the elegant counterpoint of the Gavotte was worn lightly, and he played the beautiful melody of Les Tendres Plaintes like a mellow, eyes-closed meditation.

To go from Rameau to Ravel’s Miroirs is to travel about as great a distance as you can within French music without hitting Boulez. Miroirs is a work that ripples and shimmers, be it in the flight of the moths, the shimmer of water or the resonance of bells. Liu played each with marvellous exactitude, managing a gorgeous cloud of sound for each while retaining amazing clarity. In the middle of this, the Alborada bounded along with irrepressible energy (and amazing technique), dissolving into the gorgeous smoothness of the central meditation.

The two Don Giovanni items were both stunners. There had to be some Chopin, of course, considering Liu’s competition win. Listening to these variations played live, it is remarkable how Chopin stamps his own character onto Mozart’s material right from the outset. Those glittering, silvery cascades in the introduction could be by no one else, and Liu played it like he knew that, caressing every shimmer of notes with a delicate smile of recognition. The contrasts within the drama were expertly judged, never over-inflated, and he perfectly walked the tightrope between approaching this piece like a trifle or like a thundering masterpiece. He played the minor-key variation as though it were Liszt, and he had tremendous fun with the final Polonaise.

When it came to actual Liszt, the effect was even more stunning, managing the composer’s amazing thematic transformations in a way that avoided them ever sounding superficial. Be it the thunderous rumblings of the Commendatore’s music, the dazzling charm of La ci darem, or the exploding fireworks of the Champagne Aria, Liu played each with technique that was little short of jaw-dropping. Lots of people in the audience around me were shaking their heads in quiet disbelief at his playing, and I was too. As Schumann once said of another great pianist, ‘Hats off!’

Simon Thompson

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available to listen again on BBC Sounds until 20th September 2022. The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 29th August at a variety of venues across the city. Click here for details.

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