Monday, March 7, 2016

Eric Lu concludes the solo piano-recital series "Grand Encounters" with power and panache

Successful in the jousting universe of piano competitions, Eric Lu has crowded a host of honors into his teenage years.

Eric Lu studies at the Curtis Institute.
Sunday afternoon at Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall of Butler University, the 19-year-old American pianist showed much of the sturdy, agile command of the mainstream repertoire that contest winners must have. But he gave evidence of something more, too: He seemed to have ideas about Chopin, Bach, and Schubert that he unfailingly applied with imagination and a valiant spirit.

The American Pianists Association presented Lu at the conclusion of the 2015-16 "Grand Encounters" series of solo recitals. He did not seem out of place under a banner that has also included Garrick Ohlsson and Frederic Chiu this season.

EDRH is an acoustically bright room. However thrilling that can be when the performance level is this high, it made it hard to be sure of Lu's gifts at the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum. But his control of loud-soft contrasts was secure. In Bach's Overture in the French Style, for example, he approximated the standard of "terraced dynamics" while not being so chaste about it that he declined to shade dynamics for expressive effect.

Especially delightful was his suggestion of the harpsichord's lute, or buff, stop in the second Passepied and Gavotte. This gave a winning balance to those movements, and lent the repeats of the first Passpied and Gavotte a particular sparkle. The "French style" the composer showcased in this suite moves ornaments to the foreground, and Lu played them with plenty of snap and rhythmic acuity.

He did not allow them to interfere with the characteristic rhythm of the complex Gigue. He took the option to play eighth notes evenly as written, starting with the Courante. That choice seems to suit the piano better. Despite his penchant for outlining the independence of phrases, the lyrical flow of the Sarabande was not shortchanged. The majestic Echo finale had a bold, forthright quality, snug with all the right hints of the brief "shadows" that give the movement its title.

The big contrast with the Bach in the recital's first half was Chopin's Barcarole in F-sharp major, op. 60.  This is where Lu immediately indicated his sensitivity to dynamic contrast, despite the hall's tendency to boost every note. His interpretation, while coherent, seemed a little vague in places. I took this to be a deliberate choice, since Lu's concentration and evidence of planning were never in doubt. In a barcarole, however,  the 12/8 meter should be felt without let-up; it's a boat song, after all, and the steady, gentle lapping of waters underlies it. Yet the individuality he gave to the piece was admirable. You never had the feeling that he'd stopped by the Chopin Barcarole secondhand boutique and made off with a bunch of trinkets once owned by other players.

Right after intermission came Schubert's Sonata in A minor. In the first movement, there was considerable light and shade, indicating Lu's mastery of the lively milieu. Strongly defined accents marked the Allegro giusto's progress through one of those foreboding marches that are among Schubert's influences on Mahler. Lu's scrupulously even voicing of chords helped bind everything together.

In the slow movement, Lu represented well the characteristic way this composer's bedrock lyrical impulse suffers interruptions, as though the inclination toward song had to feel its way. There was a touch of the heartsickness so characteristic of Schubert in Lu's performance. The finale, fierce in its technical demands, evinced Schubert's knack for weaving strong delineations of character into such expansive movements. Given a longer life and less bad luck with librettos, Schubert could have been a major opera composer.

The program circled back to Chopin to conclude. Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante, op. 22 featured nicely projected middle-register melodies in the first part and, in the bravura latter part,  boldness in maintaining the polonaise rhythm throughout amid its luxuriant surroundings. The final measures put a glittering cap on a masterly recital that revealed more than a few elements of wisdom beyond the recitalist's years. Called back for an encore, Lu offered the balm of Alexander Siloti's arrangement of Bach's Prelude in B minor.