I had been looking forward to Eric Lu’s recital in Vancouver, especially after hearing his stunning performance of Beethoven’s 4thpiano concerto at the finals of the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition, where he emerged as the gold medalist. Lu’s performance of that elusive concerto gives the impression of an old soul, in spite of his tender age.
For this virtual recital, recorded after his recital here had to be cancelled because of the Corona virus, Lu’s main offering is Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 959, one of the many miraculous works written in the Annus mirabilis of the composer’s final year.
Lu’s luminous tone and beautiful touch at the piano are apparent from the outset of his performance. He wisely chooses not to over-dramatize the opening of the first movement – Schubert’s indication is only forte – but, like a good storyteller, allows the drama to develop on its own. Lu deftly prepares our ears for the emergence of the tranquil E major theme at m. 55, which he imbues with a palpable spiritual quality. There is another magical moment towards the end of the exposition (m. 121), where Lu gives us a true pianississimo. In the extended development, the pianist leads us on an exploration of the myriad of tone and sound colours, as well as all the harmonic changes, the shifts between light and darkness, laid down by Schubert. In contrast with the opening of the movement, the first chords of the recapitulation is imbued with a sense of majesty and drama. That said, Lu never loses sight of the intense lyricism that is the underlying thread of this sonata. In the final appearance of the opening theme, now to be played pianissimo, there is kind of a veiled quality in the sound.
In the astounding second movement, Lu understands the madness that lies beneath the fragile beauty of the music, and the feeling that the music is just hanging on to the remnants of sanity by a thread. His handling of the buildup to the veritable storm of the middle section is quite masterful. With the C-sharp major theme at m. 148, Lu’s playing fills the music with an intensely reverential quality.
The young musician plays the scherzo with palpable lightness, as well as with an impish quality. His sense of timing is impeccable. In the trio, Lu gives the music a great deal of breathing room. He is not a rigid-tempo man – more of a Furtwängler than a Toscanini. Lu plays the opening of the 4th movement simply, with a feeling of complete contentment and happiness. He plays this music with a great deal of naturalness and masterful timing, allowing the surprises to unfold on their own, and acts as an expert guide taking us through Schubert’s ever-changing sound colours, as well as the myriad harmonic and melodic landscapes.
It is only at the conclusion of Lu’s performance that I realized that I have been living with this sonata a great deal lately, by way of Krystian Zimerman’s very beautifully played performance, and one of the most beautifully recorded album I had heard in a long time. Zimerman’s interpretation is that of a master musician, looking at the music at the height of his artistic powers and maturity. Lu’s view of this sonata is one of a young artist, albeit a supremely talented one, at the outset of his artistic journey. There is indeed a feeling of wonder and discovery with Lu’s playing. In time, his view of the music would change (I do not want to use the word depth here, because it would imply that only older artists can have “depth”, a oft-made statement that is both meaningless and unfair) and that would surely be something to look forward to.
In spite of, or perhaps because of its brevity, the challenge that lies within Chopin’s Prelude in E minor (Op. 28, No. 4) is to have this continual buildup of the music, from its very understated opening to its shattering climax. Lu acquits himself very well in this work indeed, and he beautifully shapes the ebb and flow of the melodic line, as well as Chopin’s subtle and continuous harmonic changes. In the Prelude in A-flat major (Op. 28, No. 17), a perfect foil to the intense tragedy of the E minor prelude, Lu plays with great depth of sound as well as beauty of this unique key colour. He plays the A-flat pedal note towards the end like distant tolling bells, and allows it to underscore the harmonic changes above.
I hope that Eric Lu returns to Vancouver with a live performance. This is clearly a young man that we need to keep our eyes on. I pray for continuing growth in his artistic journey and we, the listener, will be eagerly waiting for the next chapter.