Bruce Liu: Waves – Music of Rameau, Alkan, Ravel – Deutsche Grammaphon

by | Nov 24, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Bruce Liu: Waves = RAMEAU: Gavotte and Six Doubles; ALKAN: Barcarolle in G Minor, Op. 65/6; RAMEAU: Les Sauvages; RAVEL: Miroirs; ALKAN: Le Festin d’Ésope, Op. 39/12 – Bruce Liu, piano – DG 486 4400 (61:16) (8/24/23) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Canadian pianist Bruce Liu, winner of the 2021 International Chopin Competition, makes his debut on Deutsche Grammophon (rec. November 2022) with a selection of French works that extends the 200 years from the Baroque period to the early 20th Century. Collaborating in the Berlin studio with technician Michel Brandjes, Liu adjusted the piano’s action to suit the diverse styles of the chosen composers, whose sound worlds evince a distinct character. The rubric “Waves” means to capture both the fluidity in the allusions to Nature and the intuitive spontaneity in performing music close to Liu’s spirit.

Liu opens with Rameau’s 1727 Air in A Minor and Six Doubles, a favorite of two temperamentally disparate masters, Robert Casadesus and Shura Cherkassky. The attention to diverse touches that maintain a sonority close to the harpsichord yet resonant of the modern piano remains a model of dynamic balance. The evolving variations acquire girth and velocity as Liu classically poised in his chosen pulse, brings the whole to a fine sense of closure.

Liu turns to the infrequent but imposing music of Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1868), whose keyboard work came into note via Raymond Lewenthal, John Ogdon, and Ronald Smith. Alkan’s Troisième recueil de chants (1864) includes, as the last of the six pieces, the Barcarolle in G Minor. Taking Chopin as his model, Alkan fashions a gently rocking, water piece that invokes fascinating, modal elements to increase its seductively melancholy charm. Alkan’s suave harmonies make a fine contrast to the succeeding, two-minute Les Sauvages of Rameau, a study in staccato-parlando, the No. 14 from Nouvelles suites de clavecin of 1728. 

Ravel’s 1905 suite of five Miroirs demands extraordinary color nuance, given Ravel’s fixation on Nature, the peals of bells, a water-borne boat, and the sonority of dazzling, Spanish guitars. Ravel’s own debts to Franz Liszt emerge in the opening Noctuelles, night moths, whose application of repeated notes and whole tones extends the composer’s palette. Passing dissonances, clashing appoggiaturas, and modal syntax contribute to an otherworldly effect. The fluttering becomes virtually manic, while a sense of oriental languor inhabits the atmosphere. In Oiseaux tristes, sad birds, Liu’s light touch illuminates the drooping and vaulting arabesques. Tiny glissandi indicate a bird’s advance upon branch or sudden lurch onto a higher perch. The pulse has the erotic, mesmeric effect of a Chopin nocturne. The modal harmonies that conclude nod to late Liszt. Une barque sur l’océan demands much of Liu’s thumbs, all in the context of Ravel’s avoiding traditional, triadic intervals and inviting bitonal effects. The barcarolle (supple) rhythm, with its massively suggestive arpeggios and tremolos, assumes a plastic, shifting, color panoply in both F# Minor and A Major, whose ripples seem to lull us toward the realm of ondines, mermaids.  The virtuosic Alborada del gracioso, the Morning Song of a Jester after a night of festivity, invites brilliant and punishing percussion, which became the epic recourse of Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti. Liu savors the combination of guitars and castanets, invoking in the Phrygian mode their capacity for Iberian, romantically Andalusian nostalgia. The piano’s overtones contribute to the sense of lingering, nervous sensuality. Ravel does not indicate his preference for Swiss or French bells in La Vallée des cloches, but the sustained motion of 16th notes creates a kind of radiant aspect to the sonic panorama, whose darker moments certainly make use of Liszt’s piano palette. The searching chordal progressions between carillon peals enjoy something of Liu’s fondness for improvisation. 

The tour de résistance lies in Alkan’s 1857 Le Festin d’Ésope, the final étude in the set Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op. 39. This eight-measure theme in E Minor (“The itsy-bitsy spider”), marked Allegretto senza licenza quantunque, progresses in treble groups of 3-note chords, staccato. What follow are 25 variations of the most dexterous, demanding, technical resources. According to legend, Xanthus required his slave Aesop to serve dinner guests a variety of foods based on tongue, the metaphor for speech and wisdom. The “tongues” becomes Alkan’s demonic variations, an assemblage of techniques that include overlapping octaves, fast scales in both hands – often staccatissimo – octave chords in huge leaps, rolling ostinato passages, tremolos, and dauting trills.  The harmonic and metric shifts prove ingenious and quirky, assuming a bizarre, even Gothic character that reveal a brilliant eccentric at work. The sudden changes in mood and modal hue rival Liszt, Schumann and Brahms for color commentary, especially the quiet moments after thunderous explosions in martial temper. The last pages, truly tempestuous, ring with surprise dynamics, the composer unwilling to relinquish shock as part of his eldritch arsenal of effects. 

The final group of four pieces derives from Rameau’s Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin, 1728, and the Pieces de clavessin of 1724 and 1731. These brief works avoid traditional dance forms to depict states of affection or animal characterization. Les Tendres Plaintes combines staccato and legato touches in a most diaphanous syntax of quick imitation, trills, and non harmonic notes. Les Cyclopes of 1724 presents a spirited Rondeau in D, here played in a crystalline style reminiscent of Domenico Scarlatti.  The punctuated phrases rather jump at us, with blistering lines in happy syncopation in both hands. The Menuets I & II (1728) offer a moment of delicate, court tracery in the style of Lully.  The delicate trills vie for our attention as much as the precious, four-note dance motifs. Liu imitates the manuals of the harpsichord with deft attention to dynamics. The last selection, La Poule (1728), imitates the pecking of a garden fowl, a hen, whose motions become increasingly vivacious. 

—Gary Lemco

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