Over the last two years, concert-goers have become used to artist substitutions and programme changes. The Philharmonia’s all-Tchaikovsky programme with their principal conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali had both: it had proved impossible for the pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii to travel to London for the concert and in his place came Bruce Liu, who last autumn won the most prestigious of all piano prizes, the International Chopin competition in Warsaw.
It was Liu’s UK debut, and he brought with him a change of concerto too, opting for the challenge of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto, which is far less often performed than its popular predecessor. There can’t be many pianists in the early stages of their international careers with that huge, daunting work in their repertoire, but apparently Liu has been playing it for a number of years, and the tireless confidence with which he launched into its cascades of figuration suggested an easy familiarity with it.
On first encounter, there seems something attractively straightforward about his approach; an elegance and lightness of touch which came to the fore in the slow movement, with its extended solos for the orchestra’s leader and its principal cello, to which Liu added the most delicate of embellishment. But there is no shortage of muscle when required in his playing either. He gave as good as he got in the first movement’s exchanges with the orchestra and led the charge from the front in the noisy dash of the finale.
Rouvali’s approach to Tchaikovsky seems thoughtful too. He’d begun with a wonderfully refined performance of the symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini, based on an episode from The Divine Comedy, managing to avoid the bombast of the opening and closing sections … territory that Tchaikovsky would revisit 17 years later in the first movement of the symphony with which Rouvali ended the concert so impressively, the Pathétique, though in that work the programme is the composer himself rather than Dante.