Pianist Kate Liu’s Brilliant La Jolla Debut for Musica Vivace

Pianist Kate Liu made an impressive San Diego debut Saturday, March 18, in a solo recital sponsored by Musica Vivace at La Jolla’s St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church. A sophisticated program of six shorter Frederic Chopin works and Sergei Prokofiev’s daunting Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major amply displayed her prodigious technique and nuanced interpretations.

Kate Liu [photo (c.) Ken Jacques]

Liu wisely saved the fireworks for the recital’s finale, the Vivace final movement of the Prokofiev Sonata. She unleashed its electric themes blazing up and down the keyboard at breakneck speed, yet appeared in complete command of this polished tempest. From the gleaming theme she offered in her opening Chopin Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 1, however, and the consummate ease with which she transitioned into its assertive midsection, it was immediately clear that she was a pianist of exceptional skill. Her Chopin set of waltzes, nocturnes, and mazurkas reflected an astute balance of passion and refinement that signaled her prizes at the 2015 17th International Chopin Competition were well-deserved.

I was impressed with Liu’s probing interpretation of two Chopin Mazurkas, Op. 59, No. 3 in F-sharp Minor and Opus 68, No. 4 in F Minor. In her printed program notes, she described this Mazurka in F-sharp Minor Mazurka as “grand and rambunctious,” and her spontaneous, driving account delivered those characteristics in good measure. Since the F Minor Mazurka was Chopin’s valedictory composition, Liu had every reason to bring out its brooding uncertainty. I was not surprised to discover that one of Liu’s 2015 Chopin Competition awards was for Best Performance of Mazurkas!

During World War II, Prokofiev, like most Soviet artists, was evacuated from Moscow to the Caucasus, far from the watchful eyes of the Party music censors, the guardians of Socialist Realism doctrine. During this period he completed his Piano Sonata No. 8 in a more complex and harmonically adventurous style than his previous sonatas. Although it is tempting to read programmatic influences in Prokofiev’s opening movement of this sonata—e.g. warfare, combat—his muscular, pounding chords and sonic explosions in the piano’s deep bass region may simply be the result of his sophisticated musical imagination freed to explore ideas that would have brought official censorship in pre-war Moscow.

Liu brought out the dramatic allure of the Sonata’s imposing first movement without sacrificing the clarity of the composer’s brilliant thematic transformations, and in the quiet moments of the storm, her deft touch brought assuaging calm. A similar approach to the dreamy middle movement prepared her listeners for her astounding work in the toccata finale.

This recital was presented by Musica Vivace on Saturday, March 18, 2023, in the sanctuary of La Jolla’s St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church.

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