When Eric Lu took first prize at the Leeds international piano competition 15 months ago, it seemed as if a new keyboard star had been born. Recital appearances later that autumn and a CD release of Lu’s Leeds performances confirmed initial impressions, and the Wigmore Hall was packed for his first recital there, with a number of distinguished pianists among the expectant audience.
But whether he has lost his way, or whether this was just an off-night for a 21-year-old artist who surely is still maturing, it was hard to say, but this recital of Schumann, Brahms and Chopin turned out to be a disappointing experience. Even the beautiful, luminous sound that had been so striking on Lu’s first disc was nowhere to be heard here. His tone was often strident, while his pedalling sometimes so untidy you wondered whether there was a mechanical problem with the piano.
More worrying still was the sheer lack of personality in the playing, and the apparent absence of any affection for the music he had chosen to perform. Schumann’s Ghost Variations, the last music the composer wrote before he was committed to an asylum in 1854, is an elusive piece with which to begin any recital, but here it seemed just lumpish and unvaried, almost incoherent. Brahms’s Six Pieces Op 118 were utterly detached, their intimacy neutralised and their textures sometimes distorted by an over-emphatic left hand.
Chopin’s 24 Preludes, which took up the second half of the recital, occasionally revealed flashes of the grace and brilliance that had been missing before, especially in some of the early major-key pieces. But, as the cycle went on, the playing became more dogged and relentless, with empty rhetoric replacing poetry, while a couple of encores – Schubert’s G flat Impromptu, and the first of Brahms’s Op 117 Intermezzos – provided no further clues to what might make this pianist tick.