Larry Weng in Review

Larry Weng in Review

The Stecher and Horowitz Foundation Presents New York International Piano Competition Laureate Pianist Larry Weng in Recital
SubCulture, New York, NY
November 19, 2015

Rainy November evenings may not be ideal for New York concertgoers, but when the concert includes several works by one of the leading composers in the U.S. (along with related mainstays of the repertoire) and is played by exceptional young pianist Larry Weng – and at a casual downtown venue with refreshments – the picture can change rapidly. I had a hunch that I might be rewarded for wading through endless puddles.

For starters, the program included piano works by U.S. composer Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961), a tantalizing prospect. Mr. Liebermann’s works are beautifully idiomatic for the instrument, as the composer himself is a pianist steeped in the keyboard tradition; in addition, Mr. Liebermann is so prolific that, despite his presence on many programs, one always has the sense of barely scratching the surface of his output. To see two substantial works of his on one program is not too frequent, but we had that chance here with Mr. Liebermann’s Three Impromptus, Op. 68 (2000), and his Four Etudes on Songs of Johannes Brahms, Op. 88 (2004) framing Intermission. Bookending these were the opening works, Four Impromptus, Op. 90 of Schubert and the Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13 of Schumann to close – a beautifully balanced combination of the familiar and the new, and with interesting connections among them.

Larry Weng is a musician whom I’d had the pleasure of reviewing previously with particular praise for his Schubert (Aldo Parisot presents Larry Weng in review). On this occasion, his Schubert Impromptus were as thoughtful and well wrought as anyone who heard his NY Debut would expect. Here, his interpretations seemed more orchestral than vocal in conception (complete with some left hand “conducting” during right hand solo lines). His playing illustrated well his own comment from the stage about Schubert’s accompaniments, coloring the same melodic tones differently on different iterations, with different ambiance. Each of the four pieces enjoyed a balance between local color and broad overview, showing polish and sensitivity. The fourth, though, must be singled out for a leggiero touch that went beyond lightness, not feathers but nanofibers – a treat to hear!

The Liebermann Impromptus that followed were introduced by Mr. Weng as possessing certain similarities to Schubert’s. It was ingenious programming by the artist, to engage the audience in such comparative listening – even if the title “Impromptu” leaves things wide open to enable “apples and oranges” comparisons. The Liebermann pieces are naturally quite different (as one would hope, given nearly two centuries’ time difference), exploiting the keyboard’s full range in register, tonality, and dynamics, with much virtuoso writing. Mr. Weng gave them highly compelling performances.

As for Schubertian parallels, more than any similarity to Schubert’s Impromptus, one was struck by an extended, transformed reference to Schubert’s Moment Musical No. 2 in A-flat Major at the beginning of the first Liebermann Impromptu (or so it seemed, without the aid of any Program Notes). From this Schubertian kernel, the music took off into great pianistic flights of imagination. Mr. Weng played it brilliantly, as he did all three. He left the audience in a stunned state at the set’s haunting ending.

After Intermission, we heard Mr. Liebermann’s Four Etudes on Songs of Johannes Brahms, Op.88 (2004), songs of great romance and longing. These seemed really more Brahms than Liebermann, but in either case were welcome, especially in such a soirée-type milieu (and as preludes to Schumann). The Brahms originals are stunningly beautiful, with texts of longing, loss, love, harps and violets, including “Muss es eine Trennung geben” (Op. 33, No. 12), “Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang” (Op. 17, No. 1), “An Ein Vielchen” (Op. 49, No. 2), and “Eine gute, gute Nacht” (Op. 59, No. 6). Anyone who has tried to transfer lieder from voice to solo piano knows what art is required, but Mr. Liebermann’s distribution of these melodies and accompaniments flying across registers appeared to be quite a challenge, more than justifying the title “Etudes.” Much of the originals’ beauty came across in Mr. Weng’s able hands.

Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13, capped off the evening with bravura, despite some glitches. Many pianists go a bit adrift in the Finale, but some messiness elsewhere could perhaps be chalked up to some excessive speed – or possibly a bit of fatigue from the many demands of the rest of the program. In any case, Mr. Weng is a pianist from whom one expects the best, and there were some great moments, particularly the “duet” right before the Finale. The closing spirit was robust, and a cheering audience elicited an encore of the Bagatelle No. 5 in G Major from one of the most moving sets by Beethoven, his Op. 126.

Big congratulations go to Larry Weng and to the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation for this memorable evening.