Ji Liu: Fire and Water

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Ji Liu is one of the young upcoming generation of Chinese pianists to find global success in the wake of Yundi and Lang Lang.

Following studies at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and London’s Royal Academy of Music, Liu has had significant success as a Global Classic fm recording artist, topping the UK Classical Charts, and as a concert artist who has performed around the world, appearing in such distinguished venues as the Royal Albert Hall in London and Carnegie Hall in New York.

Liu’s 2018 album Fire & Water took as its inspiration the Chinese five-element theory Wu-Xing, which is at the heart of Daoist philosophy, qigong practice and traditional acupuncture. Of the five (Wood, Earth, Metal, Fire, Water) Liu selected the pairing of fire and water as a basis for programming contrasting pieces by Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Einaudi, de Falla, Scriabin, Ravel, Xian Xinghai, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky.

Fire & Water delivers an intoxicating blend of virtuosity and appealing melody that has proved immensely popular. Several of the pieces are Liu’s own arrangements, fuelling demand for the sheet music to be made available.

For the Fire & Water publication, recently brought to us by newcomer Master Music Publications, Liu has obliged with his transcriptions, together with his annotated editions of some (but not all) of the album’s other pieces, and a brand new composition Tragicomic Trilogy.

The Publication

Fire & Water is presently available directly from the publisher’s website here either as a digital download or as a physical book. They sent me the latter for this review.

The book has a robust thick card cover bearing the same striking image as the CD release:

The 56-page book is printed on noticeably thick off-white paper; according to the website the book is,

“Printed on the world’s finest environmentally friendly paper from G.F Smith. In addition to the music, you will find product information, biography, context, and link to an online guide including videos, tips and comments section. All giving you the very best learning experience.”

The downside is that the paper has a rather course feel to it compared to that generally found in music books, most noticeable when turning pages.

Perhaps it is in part due to the paper thickness that the staples of the my review copy didn’t seem able to penetrate all the way to the middle of the book: during the review period several of the pages came loose and fell out. Happily though, the publishers have assured me that they are addressing this issue.

The book begins with a biography of Liu himself, followed by his discursive Foreword, in which he discusses the impulses that drive his creativity and album programming.

The Contents page follows, listing the following scores which come next:

  • Saint-Saëns (arr. Liu): Aquarium and The Swan from The Carnival of the Animals
  • Rachmaninov (arr. Liu): Spring Waters Op.14/11
  • de Falla (arr.Liu): Ritual Fire Dance from El armor brujo
  • Debussy: Reflets dans L’eau
  • Debussy: La cathédrale engloutie
  • Ji Liu: Tragicomic Trilogy

The omission of Agosti’s stunning transcription of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, a highlight of the CD (if not the equal of recent recordings by Beatrice Rana and Daniil Trifonov) pushes the balance firmly in the direction of Water, although I suspect that will deter few! The Ravel, Scriabin, Xinghai and Einaudi pieces from the album also didn’t make it into the publication.

The book ends with three pages of Ji Liu’s performance and personal reflections on the pieces, and a final page of Footnotes, offering further tips.

The Music & Edition

With the exception of the two pieces by Debussy, all the music here is published for the first time, being either Liu’s composition or arrangement. And for the avoidance of any doubt, all this music is diploma level and above!

Liu’s arrangments of the Saint-Saëns pieces are as faithful to the original as they are supremely gorgeous. The Rachmaninov and de Falla meanwhile are ingenious, although the latter it little different to the composer’s own solo piano transcription (Liu’s is perhaps just a little easier).

The two Debussy scores seem to me reliable, but in addition to the composer’s instructions Liu has added his own, dutifully identified with an asterix. As he explains:

“With regard to other composers’ pieces, in which I added performance and editorial marks, such as Debussy’s Reflets dans L’eau and La Cathédrale Engloutie, I had deliberately examined my own fingerings and interpretational intentions, and then carefully put them down on top of the composers’ urtext score with great respect. Hopefully these performance instructions, based on my personal performing experiences, might provide some sort of new perspectives for students and my fellow colleagues when looking at these classics”

Liu’s own Tragicomic Trilogy is a 14-minute work composed in 2020.

The piece has three main episodes connected by shorter passages. The style combines the popular romanticism and minimal techniques beloved by composers of new classical pieces at present, and once recorded, its expressive appeal will no doubt prove popular with Liu’s Classic fm audience.

Closing Thoughts

The Fire and Water publication must be hugely commended on several levels.

There’s no doubting that Ji Liu is a major talent, and not only as a performer; his transcriptions and composition here are very welcome additions to the repertoire.

I think that the most significant market for the collection will be among talented music students who are fans of Liu’s work and aspire to play his music themselves. In particular, for those who wish to play his Tragicomic Trilogy (the most substantial piece here, taking up almost half of the book) this will be an essential purchase.

And for readers who have yet to hear Liu’s recording, do check it out! Along with the music book, it can be purchased from the Master Music website here.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, published author and composer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs a successful private teaching studio.

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