Eric Lu: Chopin 24 Preludes

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The 22-year-old Chinese-American pianist Eric Lu is one of the brightest rising stars in today’s classical music firmament, his playing revealing both an exciting engagement with the repertoire and a fresh and compelling new perspective on it.

Aged 20, Lu was unanimously voted winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition 2018, an achievement which propelled him firmly into the limelight and rewarded him with a management deal, major label recording deal with Warner Classics, and a concert commitment which might overwhelm the less assured player.

For his part, Lu would seem to have taken all this in his stride, the embodiment of a dream he has nurtured from a young age growing up in a house where classical music was cherished.

I briefly met Lu and heard him perform Mozart’s 23rd concerto at the Chetham’s Summer School last year (shortly before he made his BBC Proms debut with the same work), and was struck then by his poise onstage and off, his quiet confidence and calm energy.

But listening to his Warner Classics studio debut, a disc which includes Chopin’s 24 Preludes Op.28 as well as short works by Brahms and Schumann, it is the emotional range he brings to his playing which most immediately strikes me…

The Music and Performance

According to Warner Classics,

“For his first studio album since taking the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition by storm, Eric Lu has assembled a programme of works dear to his heart.”…

photography: Benjamin Ealovega

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) composed his 24 Preludes Op.28 between 1835-9, famously working on them during his sojourn to Valldemossa, Majorca, where he spent the winter of 1838–39 with his lover George Sand (real name, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) and her children.

Long regarded as a cornerstone of the classical piano repertoire, the set of miniatures is a cornucopia of creativity, the pieces ranging from just 12 bars (No.9) to 90 (No.17), each a mini world unto itself, yet cumulatively adding up to so much more than the sum of parts.

If Chopin’s 24 Preludes seem to traverse and embody every emotion known to mankind, it’s fair to say that Eric Lu’s new recording probes each as fully as I’ve heard on disc, individual microcosms shining to the full, while also tracing the line that mysteriously unifies them as a single concert work.

I was gripped from the aching sense of phrasing that gives his performance of the first Prelude such a unique power, before being plunged into the despair of the second that Lu so darkly transmits here. The whimsy of his playing of the third Prelude leads directly, without any break, into the loveliest (and one of the slowest) interpretation of the famous E minor Prelude No.4.

I could wax lyrically about each perfectly formed gem here, none of the Preludes leaving any disappointment, collectively emerging as one of the finest versions I’ve ever heard. Lu has a gift for making the familiar sound new, and in works this well-worn that is astonishing indeed.

It is clear, too, that Lu’s vision of the whole is no flash-in-the-pan, despite his young years. Interestingly, an earlier version exists on disc, recorded live when he took part in the Warsaw Chopin Prize (he won fourth place, aged just 17) in 2015. That 2015 recording is good; this one is great, and reveals how quickly Lu has matured.

The Rest of the Programme

Completing the CD, Lu also gives performances of Brahms’ ravishing and much-loved Intermezzo in E flat Op.117, No.1, and Schumann’s Theme and Variations in E flat “Geistervariationen.

Like several of the easier Chopin Preludes, the Brahms E flat Intermezzo is a student favourite that many players (and teachers) will immediately recognise.

Here again, Lu’s immaculate sense of timing and phrasing set this apart as a performance that I will cherish again and again. Lu lists Radu Lupu among his piano heroes, but his own interpretation is noticeably slower and, in my view more searching than the famous Lupu recording. Sublime!

The so-called Ghost Variations (the composer maintained that the theme was dictated to him by a spirit) are the final work Schumann wrote in 1854 before being committed to the asylum at Endenich where he died two years later; he had indeed attempted to commit suicide shortly before completing creating this, his final masterpiece.

Perhaps it’s the trauma associated with the piece’s genesis, rather than any genuine shortcomings, that informed Schumann’s widow Clara’s decision to suppress the work, not even including it in the complete edition of his solo piano works which she edited three decades later.

Even in the twentieth century the Ghost Variations remained one of Schumann’s least recorded piano works, perhaps leaving fewer and less daunting precursors for todays’ pianists. That said, superb recent recordings by Angela Hewitt and András Schiff have set a high bar.

Though perhaps less revelatory than his Chopin, Lu brings a poetry to the Schumann work that incorporates both Schiff’s clarity and Hewitt’s warmth (though not her decision to da capo the Theme at the end), and overall I again found this one of the most satisfying performances I have heard, easily an equal among the greats!

The Recording

Warner Classics have, to my ears at least, emerged as the preeminent solo piano label of late, with outstanding recordings of Beatrice Rana, Martin James Bartlett and Fazil Say recently gaining praise on this site.

Here it’s veteran producers Alain Lanceron (executive) and Martin Sauer (recording) at the helm, with engineer Sebastian Nattkemper recording Lu at the Teldex Studio Berlin in August 2019. The piano is uncredited, but it’s good to see technician Michel Brandjes listed.

The piano sound here has a sumptuous warmth and tasteful reverb that enhances rather than masks the superb clarity.

Arriving in a standard CD case, the album also features a 16-page colour booklet with programme notes by Jed Distler in English, with French and German translations, and colour artist photos by Benjamin Ealovega.

To Conclude…

Eric Lu’s affection for these Romantic era piano works is so wonderfully apparent in this gorgeous and engaging recital. How easy it would be to hear these evergreen works with tired ears; and yet Lu captures their essence as few other pianists have done, and the resulting recital is truly brilliant. Here is an amazing musical personality for our time!

One of the joys of this CD is that it can also be so widely recommended….

While some of the albums I review, though extraordinary, are strictly for the connoisseur, here is a recording that can be equally recommended to the complete newcomer. As a child, it was a recording of the Chopin Preludes which was the very first solo piano LP that I bought, and I have no doubt that with this stunning release Eric Lu can captivate a new generation.

So early in the year, but I am sorely tempted to recommend this as the one piano CD you buy this year. And I will certainly be recommending it to every student I teach.

But then, why limit yourself?

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.