It’s one thing to marvel at a pianist’s display of sheer showmanship, the entertainment value of which goes way back to the time of the prototypical crowd-pleaser of Byronic proportions, Franz Liszt.
The Érard endorsement is, of course, just a meager part of the many benefits. It’s an altogether different experience, though, to be in the midst of a performance that suspends the limits of timbre and thoroughly engages the ears more than the eyes to create a sound world that goes beyond empty aplomb.
Albert Tiu’s recital, “Four Classical Elements: Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water,” at the lobby of the Ayala Museum last June 6 was a thoughtful mix of inherent musicality, intelligence, and clear-cut pianism.
One of the more admirable facets of Albert Tiu as a performer is his insightful selection of pieces for a program that is bound to be memorable, both for the uncompromising cerebration involved in the process and the brave, consequently generous, inclusion of numbers scarcely played in any standard concert, at least in this part of the world.
Introducing representative pieces from Olivier Messiaen, Charles Griffes, Jacques Ibert, Federico Mompou, and Luciano Berio alongside canonical composers, Tiu created a dialogic continuum of the impressionistic idiom across national and stylistic traditions.
More important, the selection was not literal as one would expect from a concert whose original purpose was to accompany the viewing of Impressionist paintings. The Impressionist tag is a limiting category even in the world of music scholarship and should be regarded rhetorically in most cases.
At first, the whole business of dividing these Impressionist and quasi-Impressionist pieces into groups that would correspond to the four elements of classical thought was too much of a stretch even for someone like him with a predilection for thematic integrity.
After a while, it even sounded too telling because the significant connections seemed all too titular. I believe, though, that it would only appear that way if one were to consider the elements as merely substantive instead of sensory, as in the Buddhist categorizations.
The coloristic demands of these works are downright daunting for any regular pianist. Fortunately, Albert Tiu’s understanding of tone and texture, which was anything but common, maintained an intrinsic balance of the rational and the intuitive.
With a musical palette as impressive as his command of piano technique, imagination became a key operational tool for the proper production of sonic layers, the handling of the line, and musical phrasing. He articulated and sustained the veracity of each rendition, acknowledging requisite similarities and differences that interweave into a singular wash of the keenest kind.
His dynamic range is not boundless but acutely and efficiently spaced in context. In Albert Tiu’s case, this isn’t a matter of technical limit but musical consciousness.
His interpretations of Ibert’s “Le Vent Dans les Ruines,” Maurice Ravel’s “Jeux d’Eau,” and Griffes’ “The Night Winds” revealed a sensibility that was surely above and beyond an occasional, nonsensical outburst or a premature “subito piano.”
His attentiveness to musical narrative and the breadth and complexity of rhythm and harmonic language was evident in his performances of Messiaen’s “Un Reflet Dans le Vent” and Alexander Skryabin’s “Vers la Flamme.”
The ultimate display, though, of Tiu’s musicianship, in my opinion, can be gleaned from his explorations of the quieter, cantabile pieces.
The winsome lyricism of his take on “The Fuchsia Tree,” Stephen Hough’s transcription of the Roger Quilter song, made it even more poignant and the sense of longing more intense and lingering.
His rendition of the Catalan composer Mompou’s “El Lago” from “Paisajes” was a delicate beauty on its own. The middle section was executed with just the right amount of tentativeness and freedom and the return of the first section charged, rightfully, with the dreaminess of reminiscence.
When he played Berio’s spellbinding miniature, “Wasserklavier,” one could only wonder at the true nature of simplicity.
Berio’s friendship with the Italian semiotician, Umberto Eco, and his serious interest in structuralism after discovering the poster boy for the linguistic turn in the academe, Ferdinand de Saussure, surely changed his concept of music, but one must remember that he was also that composer who successfully managed to break away from the clutches of the European avant-garde during his time.
Tiu captured both Berio’s accessibility and the rigor and inescapable difficulty with which something important must be told. The reach of his artistry is much farther than most pianists I’ve seen and heard.
He is a consummate craftsman who happens to have faith in musical intricacy and the all too valuable connections that ensue—that is, to speak less and allow the music do its work.