Music by Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Liszt, Lü Wencheng, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, Schubert and Tchaikovsky
Ji Liu (piano)

Recorded 27-29 April 2013, Liverpool Philharmonic at the Friary, West Everton, Liverpool, UK
CD No: CLASSIC FM CFMD33
Duration: 78 minutes
Reviewed: February 2014
This is an impressive studio debut for Ji Liu, and he’s been very well recorded on a good-sounding instrument. Original pieces for the piano include a brace of Chopin Nocturnes, the E flat (Opus 9/2) and the C minor (Opus 48/1), both given shapely and affecting renditions, intimately and gently touched, the pianist seemingly oblivious of the microphones and making inviting music for us to share. A similar mood informs Liszt’s Liebestraum No.3, one of those indelible melodies we all know, and the reflective mood continues with the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata (Opus 27/2), dreamy yet structured, and we get the remaining two movements, too, played respectively with poise and uninhibitedly, although the finale is just a little gabbled at times for all the excitement on offer. Balm to the ear includes ‘June’ from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, a thoughtful barcarolle, and from Ji Liu’s native China – no doubt (there are no liner notes) – Lü Wencheng’s evocative Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake, the music exactly as described in the title and played with raptness. The moon is a bit of a theme, for ‘Clair de lune’ is also included, very sensitively realised, along with the other three movements of Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, yet these need to be a little more fluid.
Several arrangements are programmed, the disc opening with Rachmaninov’s deft transcription of the ‘Scherzo’ from Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ji Liu’s moderate tempo is perfect, his playing poised, the hands working independently, yet as one. Otherwise it is two adaptations involving Liszt and Horowitz, a double-act separated by decades. First is ‘Ständchen’ from Schubert’s Schwanengesang song-cycle. Ji Liu plays it with much expression and poetry to conjure an alluring serenade, although, as elsewhere, there is a need for a little more colour and fantasy, which hopefully he will develop, although he does seem to grow a third, slightly disembodied hand. But his capacity is superb and always at the service of the music. Finally, courtesy of the Liszt/Horowitz duo is Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre, or at least something after the idea of it! It’s what it is, familiar yet with numerous additions, decorations and twists and turns, a showpiece for a virtuoso and shameless pianist. Ji Liu is certainly the former, a master of the notes, and continuing to make music, yet a piece like this, as arranged, needs greater flamboyance and temperament than Ji Liu is willing to give – I have no doubt that he is able – yet it is rare to find a young pianist who combines stellar technique and refined musicianship to such an advanced degree as does Ji Liu. In fact, the Saint-Saëns is rather special in its elegance, clarity and organic control; when Ji Liu does cut loose he does so thrillingly, and without having already stolen his own thunder, and more than confirms him as a major talent.

 

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