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Frederic Chiu

May 14, 2006

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Pianistic Gymnastics

By David Bratman

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, says Frederic Chiu, is "one of the most challenging works ever written for the piano." For the piano? Chiu is referring to the two-hand transcription by Franz Liszt, which he performed at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose on Sunday evening as part of the Steinway Society of the Bay Area's series.

Chiu may be best known for his recorded set of Prokofiev's complete piano music, but he's been specializing in all-transcription recitals for some time now, and Liszt's Beethoven Fifth is his showpiece. Liszt in fact transcribed, and performed, all nine Beethoven symphonies for the piano. These works, Chiu says, "are so accurate and complete in their rendering" that "they can almost be considered technical analyses" of the originals. Four-hand arrangements designed for amateurs were the standard way to get to know orchestral masterworks before the days of recordings and a profusion of inexpensive concerts, but this was not Liszt's goal: He was aiming to create showpieces that, at the time, only he could play.

Power on display

The particular appeal of the Fifth on the piano is, as Chiu said, that the work is in the form of a triumphal struggle, and the struggle of one pianist trying to re-create the work of an entire orchestra reflects the message of the music.

Frederic Chiu

Even as a technical analysis, it was interesting to hear. Liszt's arrangement brings out details not always heard in orchestral performances, such as the famous four-note motive rumbling in the cellos and basses underneath the first movement's second theme. Occasionally one heard odd harmonies, not all of them the result of the pianist hitting wrong notes, though there were a few of those too. But mostly one heard power. This was a fast, thrusting performance, with some unusually emphasized pauses. Even in the most lyrical moments of the slow movement, or in the quiet "ghost" section of the scherzo, Chiu was not offering subtlety nor even really much quiet playing, though he can produce a flowing melodic line. Overwhelmingly, it was loud and emphatic. If Chiu could not make as much sound as a full orchestra, it was not for lack of trying.

Much of the same could be heard in the other transcriptions. At about the same time (the late 1830s) that Liszt transcribed Beethoven's Fifth, he also prepared his versions of a number of Schubert songs, including the cycle of his last songs, Schwanengesang. Chiu played five songs from this cycle. Liszt's transcriptions here are freer, for not only did he have to fit the vocal line in with the piano part, but he tried to convey the spirit of the words as well. Chiu approached Beethovenian power in parts of "Abschied," gave a lively, bouncy reading of "Die Taubenpost," and was only slightly more subdued in the other, quieter songs.

Dexterity and speed

Also on the concert were three Bach chorale preludes for organ, transcribed by Ferruccio Busoni, and three movements from Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé suite, transcribed by Chiu himself. Sheer stamina got Chiu through the Liszt pieces; these were more complex. Bach's three-keyboard counterpoint, reduced to one keyboard on the piano, and Prokofiev's fondness for setting themes against each other or to a complex running accompaniment, required Chiu to show his dexterity by, often, playing three parts at once. While rummaging through both a theme and its accompaniment in the same hand, he'd emphasize the theme by the simple if unsubtle technique of playing those notes louder. In the Bach, his "Nun freut euch" was smooth and tripping, while his "Wachet auf" was, in this context, remarkably lyrical. Chiu powered through the Prokofiev, dazzling with his fine, fast renditions of Prokofiev's complex rhythmic themes. He did abridge one complicated section out of Prokofiev's "Troïka" and repeated another to make up for it. But otherwise he let neither speed nor complexity stand in his way.

Despite the enervating heat in the auditorium, this was a tireless concert. Chiu's strength was as the strength of 10 — or, in the Beethoven, more like the strength of 70 or 80. If you wanted subtlety, you should have gone somewhere else. But if you wanted to see a man pound the heck out of a piano, this was the place. If there was artistry on display, it was the same artistry that appears at a truly astounding gymnastic performance. A more awesome pianistic display would be hard to find.

(David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.)

©2006 David Bratman, all rights reserved