Kuok-Wai Lio – Fantastic Young Pianist at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts

The announced artist for this afternoon’s Peoples’ Symphony Concerts program at New York’s Town Hall was the eminent Hungarian pianist, Radu Lupu. But, alas, Mr. Lupu was ill and had to cancel several concert dates, including this one. In his place, we had a young fellow, Kuok-Wai Lio, in his mid-20s and just starting out on the concert circuit. This recital was undoubtedly a big break for him, and he made the most of it.

I could only fault him, really, for his selection of Janacek’s “In the Mists” as his opening piece. Not through any fault of Kuok-Wai, but this is a piece that has never really held my attention all the way through, and it didn’t this time either. Not his fault, undoubtedly. But, that aside, I thought the rest of the recital was exceptionally good.

He followed Janacek with Schubert’s second set of impromptus, D. 935. At first I thought he was a bit too understated, playing with great gentleness but a bit impersonally, but it seemed he was slowly getting warmed up, and I found myself more and more beguiled by his perceptive phrasing and subtle manipulation of dynamics, all while appearing quite imperturbed at the keyboard. Things got more and more warm and involving, and by the third of the set he was firing on all cylinders, producing an extraordinarily insightful performance. With the final piece, he showed flashes of the humor that Schubert buried in this piece as well. By the end of this set, I was convinced I was in the presence of a young master.

After intermission, he played Robert Schumann’s Davisbundlertanze, a lengthy set of brief character pieces, mainly in dance rhythms, that is a distinctive challenge for any pianist to give a coherent structure and dramatic push through the entire half-hour cycle. I felt that here he loosened up a bit more of the reserve that characterized some of his playing in the first half, becoming more physically demonstrative and perhaps slightly less in control of his material. The performance was involving, but perhaps with slightly less of the subtlety that made his Schubert so special. He’s a young pianist and perhaps will find a happy medium, but sounded to me quite ready to make a concert career.

For an encore, he played the opening Aria movement from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a curious choice, but once again I heard the restraint and subtlety that characterized his Schubert.

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself sitting next to one of the pianist’s teachers, Gary Graffman, now retired after a distinguished career at the Curtis Institute (and, prior to that, a distinguished career as a concert pianist from the 1950s through the mid-1970s, until physical problems with his right hand put an end to his active concert and recording career). I was delighted by this kind of “only in NYC” coincidence, as Graffman was one of the pianistic heroes of my youth, and it was great to be able to compliment him on the recent release of a big 24-CD box of his RCA/Columbia recordings from that period – a box I highly recommend as I am now working my way through it. Especially valuable are the early recordings, long out of print, such as his exciting Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 with Jorda and the San Francisco Symphony for RCA. But on this occasion, he was there as the proud teacher following closely his former student’s progress.

So, Peoples’ Symphony came through with an interesting substitute for Lupu. With their excellent connections in the concert world, they usually land on their feet when a scheduled artist has to cancel, and they certainly did this time.

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