That the roof of the Trianon Theatre remained intact may indicate a minor miracle, given the explosive performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major, Op. 84 by pianist Kate Liu, under the auspices of the Steinway Society, Saturday, January 12. Ms. Liu displayed a virile penchant for fiery contrasts, textural and dynamic, in her choice of selections: she opened with Beethoven’s 1821 Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110; the four Ballades, Op. 10 of Johannes Brahms; the late Mazurkas, Op. 59 (1846) of Frederic Chopin; and the aforementioned “War Sonata” (1944) of Sergei Prokofiev.
Liu’s capacity for a broad range of effects, from shimmering and gossamer trills and arpeggios to thundering, potent percussion, made itself apparent in her Beethoven Sonata, a late work in which Beethoven explores formal structures that pay homage to J.S. Bach, particularly in the direct quotation in the beginning arioso dolente from Es ist Vollbracht from the St. John Passion. Liu’s high register conveyed a carillon tone from her Steinway that drew power from her deliberate pace and vivid articulation. The successive movement, Allegro molto in F Minor, proffered burnished steel in the form of fusillades in canon, while the last movement – a “mournful song” in A-flat Minor – took the Bach theme to exalted, contrapuntal heights in the weighty fugue. A performance balanced by both dramatic portent and flowing lyricism, the Beethoven announced an artist whose musical maturity belies her youth.
Brahms wrote his Four Ballades in 1854, much under the spell of mentor Robert Schumann, though the “ballade” form derives from Chopin. The first Ballade in D Minor takes its literary cue from the Herder translation of Bishop Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, particularly the ballad “Edward,” a tale of patricide. Liu communicated this piece’s bare intervals, its obsessive repetitions in bass triplets, and its haunted sense of dialogue, all with muscular tension. The ensuing ballades have no direct “program” as such, but No. 2 in D Major plays with the Brahms “motto” of F# – A – F# that might mean his “free but happy” motif. Liu took the molto staccato e leggiero section with studied affection. The Ballade No. 3 has a life of its own, in 6/8, a molten, even demonic, Intermezzo in B Minor. The middle section, in chordal sonority, took Liu to her ppp dynamic, which still filled the house. The last of the Ballades may well provide homage to Schumann, with its alternations of B Major and B Minor, and its easy, intimate songfulness.
Chopin made his mark in the late Three Mazurkas, Op. 59, the essential national dance of Poland, although these appear some fifteen years after Chopin last saw Poland in 1830. Liu played the Mazurka in A Minor with a parlando sense of its melodic line, a ‘spoken’ testament or ‘recalled dream’ to national pride. This kujawiak enjoyed a fine lilt in its halting accompaniment. The A-flat Major, Allegretto, opens with a firm tempo by way of a simple melody, but Chopin’s fancy – as contrapuntal as it is harmonically audacious – unfolds into a lively mazur, to which Liu imbued a colored nostalgia, or what the Poles call tesknota, pained recollection. The whirling Mazurka in F-sharp Minor, like its brethren, abounded in agogic shifts and passing counterpoint, learned and vital, a real oberek by an original genius. Liu gave its contrary emotions ecstasy and inwardness, at once.
The colossal Eighth Sonata by Prokofiev combines a timid, reserved gentility with a barbaric sense of historical context: this is the last of his so-called “War Sonatas” whose gestation takes in the tortured years 1939-1944. The first movement alone, Andante dolce, spans a huge canvas of emotions – in length and dramatic breadth – which Liu has imbibed with a theatrical force certainly in keeping with the standard set by the Russians Gilels and Richter. If the opening theme expresses a chromatic interiority, the development degenerates into a savage blitzkrieg. The various, wounded meanderings of the music virtually suggest the shell-shock of a maimed consciousness. Its return to the mournful, soulful opening material sounds like a plea for homecoming, no matter the cost. Prokofiev marks his second movement sognando, Andante dolce, a kind of whimsical minuet based on music for an intended film version of Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin. The finale, Vivace, had Liu in full throttle, often pounding out a “fate” motif in the midst of driving figures that seek heroism among the shards of rubble.
The surging of this music’s ebb and flow, its convulsive leaps into potent climaxes, proved effortless for Liu’s technical arsenal, which after the storms ands stresses of her emotionally charged program, found an encore that summed up her evening’s contradictory, affective ethos: the “Raindrop” Prelude in D-flat Major by Chopin.