Rising star pianist Kuok-Wai Lio puts focus on music

01.31.15
The Philadelphia Inquirer

By Peter Dobrin 

On the off chance that you missed the point during the Schumann and Schubert, pianist Kuok-Wai Lio slipped in an encore Thursday night at his Philadelphia Chamber Music Society debut, declaring the school of pianism from which he springs. It doesn't get much more ostentatious than Rachmaninoff's take-off on the "Liebesleid" by Fritz Kreisler. But how, you might wonder, did old-world keyboard giants such as Rachmaninoff, Josef Hofmann, and Jorge Bolet come to inhabit the soul of a 26-year-old Macau-born prodigy?

If you had been at Lio's Curtis Institute graduation recital in 2010 (also Schumann and Schubert), you might have seen this new giant coming. Then, as now, there was a flamboyance in his style, but a special kind - one in which the technical mastery was so smoothly worked out it did not need to shout.

His way with the Kreisler/Rachmaninoff at the American Philosophical Society was not anything you could mistake for Horowitz. It was more subtle and rewarding. The emphasis was on the piece and the kinds of expressive thrills that may come when all of the composers' sly melodic and rhythmic atmospherics fall into place.

A Gary Graffman student, Lio does not draw attention to himself in the ways today's audiences have come to expect. Garbed in somber black, playing with a minimum of physical fuss, he asks that you trust the ears, which report that a major personality has joined the piano realm. There's a quality in his playing that few players have - an immediacy to his touch that edges the music constantly forward (while still not sounding rushed).

Where others coddle the quiet intensity in the opening of Schubert's Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894, Lio was straightforward - and fleet. It may have come across initially as perhaps not tuned in to Schubert's great delicacy. But his vision of the first movement came through powerfully - a stark toggling between material sweet and emphatic. His view of the last movement as (nearly) pure giddiness was a particular thrill.

Haydn's Andante and Variations in F Minor opened, rhythmically crisp, beautifully facile, with not a single great tone but several. His sound production deepened as a thing of wonder in Schumann's Humoreske in B Flat Major, Op. 20. Bell tones, harps, and all of Schumann's expressive oddities emerged as characters etched in greater detail than the composer's imaginary opposing duo. So masterly a puppeteer was Lio that Florestan and Eusebius hardly knew what possessed them.