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Concert Review: Piano poetry and pyrotechnics from Ji Liu

Piano poetry and pyrotechnics from Ji Liu

Review: William Ruff


October 6 2019

Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham

You just never know when it comes to pianist Ji Liu. He’s been a tad unpredictable on previous visits to Nottingham, but when he’s on form – as he undoubtedly was on Sunday – you can see why he’s been voted the number one artist to invite back to the Royal Concert Hall.

His pre-recital chat was a good idea and showed just how much thought had gone into the programme. He said he was serving up a sort of musical sandwich: meaty Beethoven in the middle with lower calorie stuff on the outside. And all the featured composers had at least one thing in common: they were/are all pianists so their music reveals not only their imaginations but also the way their fingers worked. And Ji was also pleased with the range of nationalities on offer: British, German, French and Russian. Oh, and Chinese – Ji Liu himself.

First the meat. Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata is one of those works which changed everything. No sonata had been written on such an epic, visionary scale before and its technical challenges are still formidable today. Ji Liu seemed to make light of the cascades of notes, the trills, the glissandi as he poetically captured the over-arching mood of each movement, bringing rapt intensity to the Adagio and impressive clarity and uninhibited exuberance to the finale.

Also on the menu was Stephen Hough’s highly ingenious Nocturne Oriental, specially written for Ji Liu and full of lots of hidden Chopin quotations (as well as the Classic FM jingle). Ji Liu’s own Etude No 1 was written to exploit the piano’s tonal range and he coaxed some lovely, delicate sounds from the keyboard. His colours were also bright and fresh in the three Debussy Images and with them he explored their intimacy, wit, brilliance, mystery and still startling originality. English composer York Bowen was represented by his lushly romantic Reverie d’Amour.

Finally came the Infernal Dance, Berceuse and Finale from Stravinsky’s Firebird: more vivid colours, more keyboard fireworks. In fact, more music, because the audience wouldn’t let Ji Liu go without playing a Chopin encore.