A Young Pianist Heading for a Big Career

02.03.15
Seen and Heard International

By Bernard Jacobson

Just the other day I wrote about a pianist notable above all else for his technical brilliance. It would be hard to find a stronger contrast to him than Kuok-Wai Lio – not, I hasten to add, that this 25-year-old Curtis graduate from Macau is in any way technically deficient. My feeling is rather that thoughts of technical brilliance have never entered his head. He simply lives and breathes the music, and plays it with surpassing beauty and remarkable maturity. He is, after all, only four years younger than Schubert was when he wrote his G-major Sonata!

The Haydn and Schumann works before intermission at this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital were both played stylishly and well. But it was in that ineffably poetic and spacious Schubert sonata that Lio’s gifts were most strikingly in evidence. The leisurely (“Molto moderato e cantabile”) first movement pauses for a moment of silence as early as its second measure – and one of Lio’s salient virtues is his unhurried way with silences. As Mozart, echoed years later by Debussy, observed, “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”

Then, and it’s especially important in the last two movements of the sonata, there is Lio’s utterly idiomatic and compelling sense of rhythm. The phrases in Schubert’s minuet and finale lie down and die if you play them with mathematical precision. I often think of rhythm as a matter of piers and spans: the longer notes are the solid piers, the shorter ones fly between them, and the essential characteristic of truly eloquent rhythm is that it exaggerates, rather than underplaying, the difference between them.

Combined with unfailingly euphonious tone, these qualities made Lio’s Schubert genuinely magical. His only big mistake (and I suppose it had been foreshadowed in the Haydn variations) was to disregard the repeat mark for the first movement’s exposition. Without it, the sudden abrupt entry of the double-forte statement of the main theme at the start of the development section loses much of its dramatic raison d’être. Incidentally, the triple forte a few moments later was surely no louder than the double forte had been – but that did not matter because Lio somehow contrived to make it more intense in sonority, to excellent rhetorical effect.

Altogether this was a recital by a pianist and musician for whom I foresee a big career.