Wednesday 28 March 2018

Fire and Water

Ji Liu - Fire and Water - Classic FM
Saint-Saens, Einaudi, Rachmaninov, De Falla, Debussy, Xinghai, Stravinsky, Ravel, Scriabin; Ji Liu; Classic FM
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 Mar 2018 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
A beautifully produced programme, finely played with delicacy and clarity, yet the pianist's own personality remains too discreetly reticent

Ji Liu is a young pianist who was born in China and currently based in London and this disc, Fire and Water from Classic FM, is his fourth recital disc. The programme's theme comes from the ancient Chinese five-element theory and the music is mostly linked to the elements of fire and water, sometimes literally sometimes conceptually. The music moves through Saint-Saens, Debussy and Ravel, through De Falla and Stravinsky, Einaudi and Xinghai to Scriabin.

We start with Saint-Saens, two movements from Carnival of the Animals both water inspired, 'The Aquariam' and 'The Swan'. Ji Liu plays with delicacy, clarity and a nice fluidity. Next comes Einaudi's Le Onde, this is attractively lyrical in a new-classical vein but could have done with a bit more personality in the playing.

Ji Liu's arrangement Rachmaninov's Spring Waters has a clarity of texture and transparency despite the fist-fulls of notes. This is big Romantic music, and Ji Liu's approach is a little to cool and clear for me, though he undoubtedly brings out some lovely textures.

Manuel de Falla's 'Ritual Fire Dance' from L'amor brujo is beautifully played with some fabulous rhythms, but much of it is quite light and I missed the danger, the sense of intensity in every step. Debussy follows with a trio of pieces, Reflets dans l'eau, La Cathedral Engloutie and Feu d'artifice. All three finely realised, with fluid flexibility and some dazzling dexterity. Ji Liu's cathedral is evocative, but he avoids the darkly mysterious.

Xian Xinghai's Ode to the Yellow River is a rather old-fashioned romantic piece, charming in its way. The CD does not make clear, but I think that this is Ji Liu's arrangement of material from the second movemnt of Xian Xinghai's Yellow River Concerto

Ji Liu follows this with three pieces from Stravinsky's Firebird, 'Dance Infernale', 'Berceuse' and 'Finale', in which he moves from vibrant excitement to delicacy to beautifully calm. The opening of the 'Dance Infernale' really does quiver with emotion, but in other places I felt Ji Liu needed to let us know what he feels about the music. We then move on to Ravel with a pair of pieces, Jeau d'eau and Un Barque sur l'Ocean, the first all fluidly delicate textures, the second finely flowing with even the more stormy bits made lovely.

Finally Scriabin's Sonata No. 2 which was published in 1898. The first movement ripples beautifully and delicately with just the occasional passionate moment, whilst the Presto second movement is dazzling in its way.

This is a beautifully produced disc, and Ji Liu has an enviable way with the piano, creating clear and fluid textures allied to a strong technique.The CD booklet tells us little about the music itself and there is the worrying suspicion that we might be expected to put the disc on, sit back, close our eyes and relax, but that would be wrong, this is music which requires active listening. This is music of strong personality, and I just wish that Ji Liu would put more of his own into the performances and let us know what he feels about the music.

Camille Saint-Saens - Carnival of the Animals 'The Aquarium', 'The Swan'
Ludovico Einaudi - Le Onde
Sergei Rachmaninov - Spring Waters
Manuel de Falla - L'amor brujo 'Ritual Fire Dance'
Claude Debussy - Reflets dans l'eau, La Cathedrale engloutie, Feux d'artifice
Xian Xinghai - Ode to the Yellow River
Igor Stravinsky - The Firebird 'Danse Infernale', 'Berceuse', 'Finale'
Maurice Ravel - Jeux d'eau, Un barque sur l'ocean
Alexander Scriabin - Piano Sonata No. 2
Ji Liu (piano)
Recorded at The Friary, Liverpool Philharmonic, Liverpool, 26-28 April 2017
Available from Amazon.

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