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A Couple of Musical Titans

New York
Grace Rainey Auditorium, Metropolitan Museum of Art
01/28/2011 -  
Robert Schumann: Fantasy in C Major, Opus 17
Ludwig van Beethoven/Franz Liszt: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67

Frederic Chiu (Piano)

F. Chiu (© metmuseum.org)

I assume the only reason Frederic Chiu doesn’t show up regularly on the New York concert scene is that he is smart enough not to be seduced by our reputation as The Center of the World. He is too busy working on the psychology of music, giving seminars, exploring the universes under notes, and collaborating with his colleagues.

But when he does grace us with his presence, he graces it with a bang. Though, granted, an unassuming bang.

Mr. Chiu played only two solo works last night, but he had some help. First, performing in the Grace Rainey Auditorium of the Museum of Art, he had a venue with full acoustics, a gracious setting, and the surroundings of the always-stunning Egyptian section. Second, he was playing a new Yamaha creation, the so-called CFX which made such a lovely resonant sound, and which obviously responded with alacrity to Mr. Chiu’s musical demands. He also has modest personality, and his introductions to both works–each written in the 1840’s to raise funds for a statue of Beethoven in Bonn–was enlightening, wise and put one in a relaxed mood for a most grueling recital.

Coincidentally, he started with the Schumann C Major Fantasy a few days after another brilliant young pianist, Jonathan Biss. Mr. Biss offered both poetry and energy, and he did the near-impossible, giving some kind of cohesive structure to this ever-inspired but ungainly work.

Mr. Chiu never attempted that feat. From the first notes and a languid dreamy pause between phrases, the pianist allowed us to follow him on this dream. Except for the stout-hearted March, this was a Fantasy of revery and pure enjoyment.

Obviously, Mr. Chiu would have been aware of his audience, but he played as if they weren’t there, seemingly improvising. That last movement, with the exception of the two great chords, was an internal absorbtion in which we were allowed to participate.

The problem with Mr. Chiu is that his technique is so problem-free that everything seems simplicity itself. Listening to the Fantasy, us amateur pianists say to ourselves, “Gee, this music isn’t only beautiful but it sure is easy to play. I wonder why we have so much trouble with it.”

The second half was devoted to one of Chiu’s specials, a Liszt transcription. My recording of his Schubert-Liszt transcriptions is a prize, but those works are elementary compared to the transcriptions of Beethoven’s nine symphonies.

Liszt started with the Fifth Symphony and finished the other eight. (Liszt cheated on the Ninth, putting the vocal section in its own staff, saying it was impossible to put it a piano part. Cyprien Katsaris told me that he had spent many months but had re-written the Liszt score to include voices.)

Mr. Chiu’s offering was…well, spectacular. Not even he was able to get through the score faultlessly, and had to stop once in the middle of the first movement. Nobody regretted that, though, since it only made him more human.

I wonder how Liszt would have played it. Obviously with a lot more flash than Mr. Chiu. One can’t help a certain amount of flamboyance. But this was nothing compared to the sharp rhythms of the opening, the utterly beautiful second movement, and a Scherzo leading to a Finale introduction that left us all in…could I use the word suspense?

Mr. Chiu’s octaves and octave trilling here were frankly thrilling, and the sounds on this Yamaha CFX piano had the warmth, clarity and orchestral resonance to give it an honest sense of triumph.

Before this, Mr. Chiu had remarked that the Fifth was a symphony about struggle. “In Liszt’s version,” he said, “it’s a struggle for the piano player.”

Such an artist as Frederic Chiu can take the struggle on his own shoulders…and wrists…and fingers. Us spoiled listeners have the pleasure of hearing and being utterly bowled over by his performance and his understanding.

Only one request to the pianist. “Come back from your extra-curricular sessions, Mr. Chiu. We need you in New York.”

Harry Rolnick



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