The secret to pianist Bruce Liu's Chopin Competition win? Spontaneity

'I was really trying to find new things until the last minute that I was backstage,' he says.

'I was really trying to find new things until the last minute that I was backstage,' he says

Montreal's Bruce Liu won 1st prize at the 18th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition on Oct. 20, 2021. (Darek Golik/NIFC)

No sooner had Bruce Liu been awarded first prize at the 18th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, than Deutsche Grammophon, the world's most prestigious classical music label, announced it would release an album of highlights from Liu's competition performances.

That album was released on Nov. 19 and comprises solo piano pieces chosen from Liu's performances in the competition's various stages: Chopin's Op. 33 Mazurkas and the Variations in B-flat major, Op. 2, from the third round; the Andante Spianato and Polonaise in E-flat major, Op. 22, and Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 42, from the second round; and his entire Round 1 recital (two Etudes, a Nocturne and the fourth Scherzo).

The level of playing at this edition of the Chopin Competition was especially high, with contestants having had more time to prepare. The competition usually happens every five years, but this time, it was six years due to a COVID-related delay. "I think that was the challenge, actually: to not get bored of yourself after playing these pieces and practising them for thousands of hours," Liu told CBC Music during a recent interview. Rising to that challenge and playing with spontaneity may have been what set the 24-year-old Montrealer apart from the field of elite pianists.

"We see this recording, forged in the white heat of competition, as an integral part of our mission to increase the worldwide audience for Chopin's music," said Artur Szklener, director of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, in a statement. Clemens Trautmann, president of Deutsche Grammophon, added, "I know that everyone will join us in congratulating Bruce Liu for his revelatory interpretations during the last few weeks. The powerful emotions and extraordinary beauty of Chopin's art speak deeply to young musicians, which is why we believe it is so important to share these recordings from the Chopin Competition."

Stream the new album below and scroll down for our Q&A with Liu, who's currently touring Japan and explains how the risks he took at the Chopin Competition paid off.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

Why did you decide to enter the Chopin Competition?

Every child's dream is to participate in this competition. It's the biggest one. I felt I was the right age: I'd be too old in five years and was too young five years ago — six years ago, actually. I just felt it was the right moment. I decided not so early, like maybe two years ago, to start preparing  for it.

How did you go about preparing?

I was really trying not to play a lot of Chopin, actually. I started playing something else, like Beethoven and other pieces. That's one way of preparing Chopin: to play something else. [Laughs] Actually, this pandemic helped me in that everything went online. I started to record myself a lot — something that most artists hate because when they listen, you know, it's just really bad and everything is not the way that they think. They prefer to be in the illusion of their playing. But, somehow it's useful, that third-person perspective, you know?

What were your expectations going into the competition?

I had no expectations at all. Maybe because, you know, I had tried quite a lot of competitions. But the moment I entered the final [of the Chopin Competition], I was so happy because I could play all the repertoire I had prepared. So, my goal was achieved already. I didn't think at all about the prizes or anything.

Bruce Liu comes offstage following his performance in the 1st stage of the 18th Chopin Competition in Warsaw on Oct. 7, 2021. (Darek Golik)

What was the biggest challenge as you advanced through the competition's stages?

It was to keep the pieces fresh. A lot of people come to the competition with a program that they have prepared so well and they tried to bring that onstage, as stable as possible. But me, until the last minute, I was still trying to find new ideas. It's a bit risky, you know, but I was really trying to find new things until the last minute that I was backstage. I think that was the challenge, actually, to not get bored of yourself after playing these pieces and practising them for thousands of hours.

How much did you pay attention to the live stream on YouTube and the endless comments there?

I didn't check a lot, but you naturally check it when you look at your performance after you have played. I look at [the comments] as entertainment. For me, it doesn't matter whether people like me or hate me, you know, I just take it as entertainment. It's fun, especially those Bruce Lee memes about me, you know? It makes classical music much more energetic. So, why not?

How does it feel to add your name to the list of laureates of the Chopin Competition?

I still can't really imagine my name next to these legendary people. Maybe I still need some time to digest what really happened. [Laughs] And for now, it's really about focusing. The responsibility is huge and this is only a starting point.

Describe your life during the three weeks since you won the Chopin Competition.

Time flies. I've already played Chopin's E Minor Concerto seven times in 10 days. It was a tsunami of scheduling. And yeah, I really wanted to go home [to Montreal] after the competition — it's really tiring, really intense — but then you realize you still have to be out for a long time. But I'm getting used to it. It's a new adventure and challenge.

How did Deutsche Grammophon choose the repertoire for your album?

I don't know, they just chose! [Laughs] And when they showed me the playlist, I was happy with the pieces they chose, so that's it.

What's your state of mind, knowing you'll be expected to play lots more Chopin in the months and years to come?

As much as people want to hear me, I will play it. But, when people give me the choice, I'll definitely ask for some other repertoire.

What new repertoire are you working on these days?

A bit of French music, like Ravel and also French baroque like Rameau and these things. I like to discover a lot of lesser-known pieces. Of course, there's a lot of masterpieces, but there are also so many treasures that have yet to be discovered. Classical music repertoire is huge. So, why do we always stick with the same?