Bruce Liu on what drives him and undiscovered musical gems

Pianist Bruce Liu in black turtle neck jumper before a black background.

Bruce Liu joins us on 10 March for an all Tchaikovsky programme with Santtu-Matias Rouvali.

We spoke to last year’s Chopin Competition winner about the approach to his musicianship and what to look out for in Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto.

Winning the Chopin Competition requires a lot of dedication. What drives you?

I think it’s all my hobbies and the balance in life. When we think of people competing in a competition, we think they are practising ten hours a day. But in my case, it is really the balance between all my hobbies, like swimming, karting, chess, sports… That’s really what drives me, to make music in a fresher way.

Music is a way for me to express emotions. And when I practice or play, I really forget everything else in the world. Which makes me very focused. Music has the power to help me clean my soul. It can be a bit like punching, you know, boxing a bit to release stress.

You can just throw all the trash, the anxiety, into the music when you play; it is a way simply to feel better.

Your playing has been described as ‘elegant’ and ‘filled with imagination and fantasy’. What do you want to portray in your music-making?

To be honest, I simply try to follow my nature.

Of course, it’s very important to always be faithful in classical music to the composer whose music we’re playing. But there’s one thing that I think we have a tendency to lose nowadays: the courage to show our personality. A lot of people want to play safe; they’re afraid of criticism. For me, there’s no good or wrong music. Of course, there’s a lot of structure and style to know and to respect. But I think it’s the uniqueness that makes classical music very special is a bit lost nowadays. I like to say that the only thing we all have in common is difference.

As long as we stay sincere and are true to ourselves; as long as you can convince yourself first, then people will understand it, no matter what. And as long as it’s convincing, and you have your own logic, it will work.

How do you approach playing a work by Tchaikovsky after having played so much Chopin over the last months?

This is such a good feeling. [laughs]

The last time I played this piece was back in 2019, since when I’ve played music by Chopin but also by Beethoven, Rameau and a lot of other composers to keep my mind fresh, as the Chopin Competition was postponed by one year. It’s not possible for me to play a single piece for too long. I will lose inspiration, as simple as that.

And after two years, I feel completely different coming back to this piece. I hope in a good way, of course. Approaching every composer is different. When I think about very true, masterful performances, I try to think about how it has been done. A lot of people don’t understand this, they only see the playing. But you have to understand the lifestyle, childhood, development and the people who influenced the composer. All these things have a very big influence.

The way I approach Tchaikovsky is hard to explain. I feel that his music has such deep meaning, but at the same time, it’s expressed in such a simple and virtuosic way, at times very childish and very naïve, as well.

What should the audience look out for in Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto?

This is a huge work. The only piece of a similar duration that comes to mind is the Second Piano Concerto by Brahms. There are the vast solo parts, cadenzas, in the first movement. Tchaikovsky wrote three cadenzas in this concerto for the first movement alone, and the longest one is probably around five minutes!

So it’s really huge; with huge parts for the soloist. Also parts of tutti – solo, tutti – solo, tutti –  solo… which makes the work extremely challenging, and I hope the members of the orchestra will not get bored.

In the second movement, there are large solo parts for violin and cello, and piano, basically making a trio, like a concerto for piano trio. There’s a version that removes all these sections, but I decided to play the complete version because I think this melody really deserves to be listened to; for me, it’s one of the most beautiful melodies Tchaikovsky ever wrote. All these factors make this concerto very special to me.

The second piano concerto somewhat stands in the shadow of Tchaikovsky’s first. Is there another piece you can recommend that excites you but is not that well known?

I think it’s very unfair. And simply because of the fact that the piece was dedicated to Rubinstein, who was destined to never play it, as he died in 1881. So the work has never really attained much popularity. It really deserves to be played and listened to much more.

There are so many hidden gems. At the competition, for example, I played Chopin’s Variations Op. 2 on the theme of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I wouldn’t say never, but I never heard it being played on different media or YouTube, or in previous years of the competition; basically, nobody played that piece.

I think there are many more pieces like this. I will put Rameau in my next album coming with Deutsche Grammophon, which I think is a very much neglected composer but very, very fun and virtuosic at the same time.

There are endless examples: people such as Kapustin with his jazz influences is one of the composers I also really love.

I think playing these pieces really gives some fresh air. Why should we always stick with the same piece that so people play all the time, while so many things are still undiscovered which should be discovered?

This is your first concert in the UK – apart from the concert itself, what are you looking forward to about your trip to London?

First of all the history, like the Industrial Revolution: London has the world’s first underground railway. And I think there are more than 150 museums in London and some of the world’s biggest. And the clock tower, and London Eye…

I want to learn and be inspired. Also about all the historical events that have happened in the city. Now we’re getting maybe a little bit far from music, but we all know the concert halls and the composers and musicians that lived and are still living in the city.

Bruce Liu performs Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto with Santtu-Matias Rouvali and the Philharmonia on Thursday 10 March at 7.30pm.