Eric Lu wins the 2018 Leeds Piano Competition

Just to say how overjoyed I am that Eric Lu has won the 2018 Leeds Piano Competition. Those of you who read this will know of course that he first came to my attention in Duszniki Zdroj in August 2015. This is what I wrote about his appearance in the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw and at Duszniki:

Reflections on Stage II       9-12 October 2015

Eric Lu (United States)

Here at last we have a pianist who fulfills all the criteria I have outlined above - at last, at last - a true poet of the piano who managed to create an atmosphere of intense intimacy on a Steinway in this vast hall. 

As George Sand once said  of Chopin 'He lives in a different world to the rest of us.' Here we moved to a different level of musicianship altogether and far, far closer to the authentic intentions of Chopin at least as I conceive them from my own studies over almost a lifetime.

The Mazurka in A minor Op. 17 No: 4 contained the most intense nostalgia for a lost Poland in the heart and spirit of Chopin. The intimacy brought me close to tears. This Mazurka is an unusual work and it is telling that Lu chose it to play in the competition - hardly a display piece. The heart-rending interpretation of the Nocturne in B Major Op. 62 No.1 moved me similarly with its extraordinary sensibility and sense of the Chopin aesthetic of restraint and lyrical poetry. Lu was a true 'Ariel' at the instrument. And such poetry, refinement and deep sensibility also in the Andante Spianato and yet when needed a fabulously sparkling Grande Polonaise Brillante Op.22 full of articulated clarity, bravura and styl brilliant in the glistering manner of Hummel. Wonderful. The Barcarolle contained the most miraculously controlled rubato, the impressionistic feeling of a gondola rocking on the water of the lagoon, a sense of highly labile romance. This would have been the sort of interpretation Debussy would have loved, this being one of most dearly loved Chopin pieces. The Waltz an elegant glittering confection in the priceless Faberge sense. the masculine and feminine sides of Chopin nature beautifully poised and balanced.

I heard this pianist first at the Duszniki Zdroj Festival in August this year. He performed the Op.28 Preludes after being given only half  a recital duration shared with another pianist

This is what I wrote then:

This remarkably young pianist of only 17 had just come from the US after winning the 1st Prize in the US National Chopin Piano Competition in Miami. He was born in the US to Chinese and Taiwanese parents. It is held every five years and the rules reflect closely the regulations and requirements of the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw which will take place in October 2015. The winner is automatically accepted into the Warsaw Competition. We were full of anticipation which was more than realized.

He chose to perform the great and demanding cycle of Chopin Preludes Op.28. I could not possibly give an account of each prelude nor would it be desirable in review of this nature. 

During the Duszniki Zdroj International Chopin Festival there is always a 'Duszniki Moment' that is unique. One can never anticipate when it might occur or what nature it might take, be it pianistic, scandalous or highly amusing. But it will occur...this was the moment for me but will there be another?

First of all the tone Eric Lu produced was luminous, the articulation spellbinding and exciting, the legato andbel canto desperately moving. Notes were articulated as flowing water or as 'strings of pearls'. Even if this phrase smacks of cliche, this is what he did - every note of the score fully articulated. The reminiscence of a Horowitz sound if not a Horowitz temperament seemed inescapable. One could hear a pin drop in the dworek. The playing was breathtaking and really of the highest order of finger dexterity. In the background I could hear the refined sound world produced by one of his teachers, Dan Thai Son (and you know my opinion of this great artist). 

It would have course been impossible for Chopin to have ever considered performing this complete radical cycle in his musical and cultural ambiance (not least because of the brevity of many of the pieces). Although it is now well established as a complete work, a masterpiece of integrated ‘fragments’ (in the nineteenth century sense of that aesthetic term). Each can of course stand on its own as a perfect miniature landscape of feeling and tonal climate but ‘Why Preludes? Preludes to what?’ as André Gide asked. I think it unnecessary and superfluous to actually answer this question. We must to turn to Chopin’s love of Bach to at least partially understand them (he took an edition of the ‘48’ to Mallorca where he completed the Preludes). I think it was Anton Rubinstein who first performed them as a cycle but I stand to be corrected on this. 

The sound world of each as Lu produced it was simply stunning and breathtaking. A 'leaping to the feet' moment. Some performers of the cycle (Sokolov, Argerich, the greatest historically to my mind by Alfred Cortot) give one the impression of an integrated 'philosophy' or spiritual narrative which I felt was lacking here. Such comparisons are desperately unfair and invidious to level at an 17 year old with his magnificently precocious talent and pianistic future ahead. Depth with growing maturity is inevitable in life as we all know...

As always I felt the magnificent bass resonance in the left hand of many of the Preludes on the Steinway in the smalldworek, occasionally unbalanced the musical writing. This does not detract from the Lu's amazing execution. It is just that some of their 'Prelude egos' were inflated rather than retaining the intimacy which waxes and wanes so fleetingly and poetically until that final passionate utterance in D minor of No. 24, traditionally the 'key of death'. The last three notes (the lowest D on the piano) Lu played with his fist which for me visually gave expression expression to the lines by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in his poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night which could apply to the spirit of the cycle as a whole:

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The Preludes were written in a period of great emotional upheaval for Chopin.

As Lu will definitely proceed to Stage III and will play the Preludes and three more Mazurkas, this is just a taster of what we can expect. 

At this Stage II and following his similarly moving and brilliant Stage I,  I predict he could do well in this competition. 

However, do poets win piano competitions in 2015? 

He will only be defeated by a lack of maturity (which he can scarcely avoid at his age) and experience playing more extended works. Some members of the jury may prefer a modern, declamatory Chopin aesthetic based not on poetry and sensibility but the power of an exaggerated dynamic with fierce tempi and crystal articulation. One reservation I have which has nothing to do with his playing is that he has avoided programming a Sonata - for pianists a large and musically demanding Chopin form which may count against him with some members of the jury.

Other outstanding pianists which have impressed me so far in Stage II and who I feel could pass to Stage III follow. I shall not burden you with my usual detailed assessment review of their playing despite this being rather unfair to these extraordinary young people.

19 October 2015

Eric Lu (United States)

Naturally in light on my foregoing remarks you would realize I had high expectations of this concerto stage. They were certainly realized and even more opened up new avenues of thought for me. I was seated in the back of the balcony for this concert having been given a ticket for this final in a miraculous gesture by a friend.

The E Minor Concerto Op. 11 of 1830, although the first to be published, was the second that Chopin wrote after the F Minor Concerto Op. 21. His rapidly increasing compositional skill is evident. The period of its composition was a period of chronic indecision for Chopin. He discussed endlessly with his family if he should venture out from musically relatively provincial Warsaw to the sophisticated worlds of Paris or Vienna. He wrote with uncanny prescience 

‘I’m still sitting here – I don’t have the strength to decide on the day […] I think that I’m leaving to die’

I must confess to not being happy with the lack of what I would call 'committed energy' on the part of this orchestra and the conductor. I feel the opening could be far more rhythmically noble, even Beethovenian in symphonic strength as the powerful presence of the timpani would indicate. The entrance of the lyrical soaring main themes on violins would then have far more of an impact. The Allegro maestoso has the word maestoso qualifying the direction Allegro for a reason. It is a direction we often encounter  in the Chopin polonaises - a traditional expression of distinct Polishness that contains within the original dance the martial qualities of nobility, grace, resistance, élanthe glitter of the sabre, the proud stroking of the Sarmartian moustache valiantly facing the enemy. Where was this? Once again my benchmark for this concerto with its magical symbiosis between orchestra and soloist is the 1967 DGG recording by Marta Argerich and the London Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado. This only two years after she had won the Chopin Competition in Warsaw.

Lu introduced the main themes on the piano with intense lyricism and bel canto. His understanding of the Chopin melodic genius is deep indeed and his execution of the decorative variations on these themes and phrasing is musical and superb. He has so much to say about this composer. There is such coherence and continuity in the first movement I was reminded of the Vistula River in flood - the surface broad and unflustered but the power beneath deep and powerful. 

Concerning the Romance. Larghetto, in a letter to his close friend Tytus Woyciechowski Chopin wrote of this movement‘It is a kind of meditation on the beautiful springtime, but to moonlight’. Lu understood this Mozartian lyrical refinement and his cantabile in the statement of this melancholic love song contained within it an atmosphere of almost divine simplicity. Moments of sadness and introspection were overcome as if the sun emerged tentatively from behind clouds in gestures of the purest poetry. In a characteristically oblique reference, Chopin had once written to Tytus of Konstancja Gładkowska ‘Involuntarily, something has entered my head through my eyes and I like to caress it’. I felt Chopin's imagined gentle caress of Konstancja in Lu's playing.

Then a curious thought occurred to me. I was comparing in my inner ear the intensely lyrical performance the previous evening of this same movement by Kate Liu. I suddenly realised that here, within the same Larghetto of these two distinct performances, was laid out in song the contrast in sensibility and sentiment between masculine and feminine expression of youthful love. Both artists are intensely musical poetical beings it seems to me, yet there was a strength of lyricism in the playing of Eric that could almost be tranmuted into the mirror image of an even more tender feminine sensitivity in the performance of Kate. Two sides of the most beautiful human coin one can imagine.

The Rondo.Vivace follows attacca, meaning without pause and suddenly we are launched from our romantic reverie into the youthful dance world of the fun-loving youthful Chopin, that of the energetic krakowiak. As I have mentioned before the actual sound  that Lu extracted  from the instrument in this wonderful styl brillant  movement is really quite breathtaking.  

You know he reminds me in the quality of his sound of the recordings of the giants of late Romantic pianism such as Josef Lhévinne, Moritz Rosenthal, Josef Hofman, Vladimir Horowitz and Leopold Godowsky. He has the similar remarkableFingerfertigkeit (finger dexterity) of the late nineteenth century. These pianists possessed exquisite beauty of tone with absolute delicacy and evenness of touch which scarcely any pianist today achieves with the same consistency. 

I feel in many ways Lu possesses this and I dearly hope with musical maturity and experience he retains and develops these qualities. Such talents are a gift from God to your inner ear. You can develop this inborn gift of mind hand co-ordination and combine it with a concern to listen with concentration to the sound you are making at the instrument. This final movement was a spectacular display of virtuosity and sheer a sonority of crystalline clarity. An electrifying experience for me in the Warsaw Filharmonia.

The concerto was premiered in Warsaw three weeks before Chopin left Poland forever. I speak often in this journal of historical context. Surprisingly, even incomprehensibly for us, there was an intermezzo after the first movement of the concerto ('thunderous applause ' Chopin wrote) when a singer, one Anna Wołkow, sang an aria by Soliva (a nineteenth century Swiss-Italian composer of opera, chamber music, and sacred choral works appropriately from a family of Swiss chocolatiers). Only then was Chopin able to play the final two movements. 

A second singer after the conclusion, the very source of his romantic yearning, was Konstancja Gładkowska.

Such poetic moments and reflections transport one out of this blighted world of ours into a more civilized realm of human endeavour than the destruction of Palmyra.

Wonderful that all my predictions (and the remarkable musical foresight of the Duszniki Artistic Director, pianist Professor Piotr Paleczny) have come true. The Beethoven Concerto was of the finest which earned him in addition the Terence Judd Orchestral Award.


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