U.S. Chopin winner Lu shows talent and tenderness in New York debut
While one of the world’s great musical competitions, the Tchaikovsky Competition, is going into its final week in Moscow, another is just gearing up. The International Chopin Piano Competition won’t begin in earnest until October, but the field has just been set.
One of the competitors will be Eric Lu, who earned a spot as the winner of the National Chopin Piano Competition in Miami earlier this year. At just seventeen years old, Lu will be among the youngest entrants competing for the prize in Warsaw.
Evaluating such youthful artists in a professional setting is never easy, as they can be expected to mature in many ways over time, and trying to quantify “potential” is inherently tricky. As of right now, there is little question that Lu is a pianist of talent and ability, as he showed in his recital in Carnegie’s Weill Hall on Wednesday.
He opened with Chopin’s Op. 17 A-minor Mazurka, making a strong first impression with his soft, gauzy touch. His phrasing was free and sensitive, driven largely by a liberal but tasteful rubato, all elegantly blurred by his judicious use of the sustaining pedal. A well-sculpted Schubert Impromptu (Op. 90, No. 3) followed, showing a beautiful lyrical quality in the melody that fit the composer perfectly.
Lu’s Bach brought one back to that question of “potential”—his musical sense was no less acute here, but his balance was problematic in the French Overture (BWV 831). In the opening section he gave the two voices almost precisely equal weight, so that it was hard to distinguish one from the other and hear the direction of the music. His counterpoint cleared up in the faster dance sections—the gavottes, passepieds, and bourées—however he tended to push his tempo. Call it precocious exuberance.
That problem resurfaced somewhat in Lu’s post-intermission set of Chopin’s 24 Preludes, the complete Op. 28 set. The first two were stunning—No. 1 was a wonderful stream of rippling sound, and No. 2 was richly textured, the pianist’s perfectly balanced chords emerging as if through a haze of smoke. But as he came to the faster preludes, starting with No. 3, he tended to get carried away by his tempo. The fifth and tenth preludes both felt scrambled, as though the primary concern were simply getting to all of the notes at an impressive tempo.
Storminess, though, came surprisingly easily to Lu, given his serene composure on the bench. The tenth prelude was brooding and powerful, as was the twenty-fourth, whose last note pounded out for effect with a clenched fist.
Humor found its way into Lu’s playing now and again; Prelude No. 7 broke into the stream of the set with almost goofy bliss. But it was again the most tender and sentimental of the preludes that stood out, and that showed his exceptional musical sensitivity. The fourth, perhaps the most beloved of the collection, a quiet but persistent elegy, was transfixing. Timing is Lu’s strongest technical asset as a pianist, and everything in this prelude was precisely and thoughtfully placed.
Lu offered two encores. The first was Chopin’s the Op. 42 Waltz in A-flat, a lovely, tripping romance given a dreamy performance. He closed the evening in his natural vein, with a sweet and graceful excerpt from Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze.
For more information about the International Fredyryk Chopin Piano Competition, visit http://chopincompetition2015.com/