Life begins at 40, according to the old adage. Not for Chopin, not for Mozart and most definitely not for Schubert, who was just 31 when he died. How much potential was lost in their early passing we will never really know. Bringing this trio of composers together was one of the merits of this recital given by Eric Lu, winner of the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition, and himself a slip of a young man at the age of 25.

Eric Lu
© Benjamin Ealovega

There was nothing lightweight about Lu’s Chopin at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. He offered the four listed works as one unit, with scarcely a pause between them, beginning with an early Polonaise, then two Waltzes and a concluding Nocturne. The first three pieces revealed an entirely unhurried approach to this composer, full of grace and charm, the evenness of line and judicious pedalling complementing the luminosity of tone. This was the poet at work in his lofty garret, gazing across rooflines into the middle distance. If the two waltzes lacked dance-like exuberance and sparkle, there was already a hint of later darkness in the Nocturne no. 13 in C minor where in the middle section ominous sounds were conjured up by the left hand, reinforced by thundering octaves announcing the presence of hobgoblins and other creatures of the night. In the first of his three encores, the famous “Raindrop” Prelude, Lu delivered an even more poetically imbued account, taken at a daringly slow but magnificently sustained tempo, rapt in its moments of contemplation, equally impressive in the rumble of thunder and the gentle patterns of precipitation. 

Lu is a remarkably self-contained artist not given to outward show or point-making. His reading of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A minor, K310, was inner grief wrapped in a shawl. The often cited Sturm und Drang influences were much less in evidence than a firm structural control; the pain and heartache felt at the loss of his mother shortly before composition never turned into mawkishness. If anything, it was the long slow movement, marked Cantabile con espressione, which tapped into reservoirs of sentiment. I was immediately struck by the way Lu created the atmosphere of a children’s nursery, with spinning tops, whirligigs and the rotating blades of windmills. He caressed the keys while maintaining perfect articulation, each of the trills being gently inflected. Nor was any of this at all superficial: as the end of the movement approached, the deeper feelings of sorrow became apparent in the way Lu’s bass register slowly but firmly imposed itself upon the treble register.

Having exchanged a non-adjustable piano stool for a chair during the interval, Lu returned for one of the three great sonatas which Schubert wrote just before his death. For Lu this is “the composer who moves me most intensely”. He took just over 40 minutes to traverse the four movements of the Piano Sonata in A major, D.959, and at its conclusion I felt I had come to the end of a long and wearisome spiritual journey. He started with slow and emphatic chords, followed by hushed tones and magically engineered moments of virtual silence, the moon peeping in and out of the shadows, then surges and ripples of ascending scales leading to exploding cascades of notes. Yet it is the Andantino which tears at the sinews of the soul most strongly, where trills open up the utter bleakness of the abyss lurking below. Lu’s extraordinarily detailed dynamic range, the feather-light textures of the Scherzo, and again and again the shafts of sunlight set against the weighty penumbra were all evidence of the fact that Lu inhabits Schubert’s world completely.