Xiaoya Liu provides powerful advocacy for Vine piano sonatas

August 04, 2022

Carl Vine: Complete piano sonatas (Nos. 1-4). Xiaoya Liu, pianist (Dynamic).

Carl Vine is one of the most prolific and consistently inspired composers of our time, with an output that includes eight symphonies, thirteen concertos and six string quartets.

The Grant Park Music Festival has been a consistent advocate for the Australian composer. Carlos Kalmar presented the Chicago debut of Vine’s Symphony No. 6 (“Choral Symphony”) in 2019 and he will conduct the world premiere of Vine’s duo-piano concerto, Zofomorphosis at the festival on August 17.

Serendipitously, the Michigan-based pianist Xiaoya Liu has recently released a CD with premiere recordings of all four of Vine’s extant pianos sonatas, which makes a timely prelude to the premiere later this month.

Vine’s sonatas were composed over a three-decade span from 1990 to 2019, written widely apart and all four running about 15 minutes.

The first two sonatas were composed in 1990 and 1997, respectively, each contained in two movements. 

The Sonata No 1 begins in an impressionistic fashion, soon segueing into a fast, brilliant section imbued with nervous energy. The second and concluding movement (“Leggeiro a legato”) is a toccata-like moto perpetuo, alternating with passages of uneasy lyricism. There is a degree of solace as the music comes full circle, and after the driving toccata returns, the sonata ends in a mood of plaintive melancholy.  

The Sonata No. 2 opens in imposing fashion, given full power by Liu, moving to running Ravelian passages. Here too, the restless agitation is contrasted with moods of pensive rumination. After a deceptively relaxed opening in the second movement, the music accelerates into aggressive syncopated dissonance, with Liu bringing impressive intensity to the driving, broken-note angularity.

The Third Sonata (2007) is cast in four concise movements, played without pause. The opening Fantasia begins with a spare lyricism that moves into more lushly romantic pages and a somber Beethovenian section before closing with an ominous bass tread. The ensuing Rondo is driving and anxious, followed by a set of Variations where an uneasy expression dominates. The sonata concludes with a driving, headlong Presto with contrasting slow sections before a bravura coda.

The Sonata No. 4 (2018) is cast in three movements, again with no break. The titles of each section sums up the music. The opening “Aphorisms”  contrasts a flowing rhapsodic theme with a more insistent motif. “Reflection” offers an inward, ruminative soliloquy, with a more turbulent middle section. The sonata concludes in the aptly named “Fury,” with driving malign music that the composer said represents “relentless and unfocused anger.”

Xiaoya Liu is clearly engaged by Vine’s piano music and provides the strongest possible advocacy for these dark yet compelling works. All four sonatas were written for other pianists, but it’s hard to think that anyone could match Liu’s powerful and nuanced performances. She has a natural feel for Vine’s rapid shifts and tricky ebb and flow, and Liu brings daunting bravura to the brilliant pages as well as searching yet unsentimental expression to the more introspective moments.

With an exemplary recording, Liu’s disc of Carl Vine’s complete piano sonatas is highly recommended for pianophiles looking for intriguing keyboard byways as well as pianists seeking contemporary recital material.

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