Review: Enigmatic young pianist offers highs and lows in first Ottawa concert

Eric Lu made his Ottawa debut Friday night in the Master Piano Recital Series.

The Masters Piano Recital Series ended its season Friday evening with Eric Lu, a 20-year-old Boston-area pianist who already has a resumé as long as my arm. No, really: Lu’s biography took up nearly two pages in the program.

These young artist bios always make me smile as they earnestly rattle off prizes, competition placements, teachers and academic achievements, as if the musician were applying for a job. Generally, the more established the career, the shorter and less formal the biography. Perhaps because they are so concerned about being taken seriously, young musicians often seem reluctant to share more interesting, essential tidbits of personal information: what drives them, what brings them joy, and what do their lives look like away from the practice room.

Lu certainly came across as enigmatic at his Ottawa debut. Tall, rail-thin, poker-faced, he did not speak to to audience, barely looked at them in fact — secure in a bubble where only the music mattered.

In 2015, at 17, Lu became one of the youngest ever prizewinners at the Warsaw Chopin Competition. Critics praised his delicate, dreamy playing, but since then reviews have become more uneven. Friday’s recital continued this trend of inconsistency: while Lu’s technique was irreproachable, and he created many moments of sheer, suspended loveliness, his playing also demonstrated a limited palette and a frustrating tendency to lose himself in the music without always bringing the rest of us along.

Mozart’s Rondo in A minor was given a surprisingly Romantic treatment: the pedalling thick, the tempo leisurely, the rubato liberally applied. Lu has a remarkable, preternaturally mature sound: plush and mighty, with endlessly singing legato lines that turned the piece’s chromaticism into wistful, melancholic sighs. However, he applies this same sound to everything, at every dynamic. There was little variation in colour — that lighter touch, those little water droplets of transparency, that even late Mozart needs.

Lu’s full-bodied approach was better suited to Brahms’ Op. 118 set. His uncanny ability to draw out a phrase amplified the tender, trembling lyricism of the A Major Intermezzo and the the F Major Romance. But even in Brahms I felt Lu’s edges were a little too soft and blurred; the G Minor Ballade calls for both blazing fire and unyielding stone, and had neither.  

In the second half, a set of variations on a Schubert theme by the German contemporary composer Helmut Lachenmann. This early piece, written in the late 50s before Lachenmann fully embraced concretism, was new to me. It was far from a revelation, but contained enough rapid-fire, percussive virtuosity for Lu to display a different, more aggressive side to his pianism.

Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 was an expected choice for a Chopin competition alum. You would have expected Lu to truly dazzle here, but not everything was of gold star quality. The first movement called for a more agitated, turbulent, breathless spirit, and more dramatic contrasts in mood. The Scherzo was admirably stated, but it could have been a hair faster — the middle section sounded more sleepy than serene.

Lu brought the wow factor at last in the Funeral March, with a masterfully built, incredibly patient crescendo that gave a vivid impression of a somber cortege approaching from a distance. It was an effect I’ve heard pianists twice his age try and fail to create. And the finale was like a tornado of unfeeling, destructive power, the drama coming solely from Lu’s tight, fighter pilot control of those flying unison scales.

As an encore, Lu gave a tenderly lyrical performance of a transcription of Bach’s Sheep may safely graze by the great Dutch virtuoso Egon Petri.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.