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Shen Lu: Watercolor = PEIXUN: Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake; RAVEL: Miroirs; RACHMANINOV: Etudes Tableaux; DUN: Eight Memories in Watercolor – Shen Lu, p. – Steinway & Sons

Shen Lu: Watercolor = PEIXUN: Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake; RAVEL: Miroirs; RACHMANINOV: Etudes Tableaux, Op. 33; DUN: Eight Memories in Watercolor, Op. 1 – Shen Lu, piano – Steinway & Sons 30039, 67:32 (8/14/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

A native of Jiangsu, China, pianist Shen Lu earned the gold prize at the 2014 Hilton Head International Piano competition, which led to this collaboration with Steinway & Sons for his debut recording (2-4 March  2015). “Watercolor” highlights Shen Lu’s specialization in contemporary Chinese repertoire, with one work each by Chen Peixun and Tan Dun, arguably the most familiar composers of Chinese extraction in the Western world. Lu’s rendition of Ravel’s Miroirs gleaned Best French Music Prize at the 2015 Dublin International Piano Competition. He currently studies with Haesun Paik at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Chen Peixun transcribed the 1930s folksong by Lu Wencheng, “Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake.” Its gentle arpeggios and rippling upper register proves apt for Lu’s poetic temperament. A luminous chorale rises in the midst of the swirls and eddies, a brittle aria Liszt might have admired.

Lu’s penchant for Ravel’s 1905 suite of five “mirrors” becomes immediately obvious in his fluid rendition of Noctuelles, night moths that flutter over a resonant pedal. The skittish chromatics bask in moonlight, while the return of the opening occurs a fifth below, rather “classical” to an initiate in Ravel’s mysteries. The “sad birds” seems to focus on one particular bird, not far from Schumann’s Vogel als prophet. More birds clamor further along, but a cadenza serves as a transition to the isolation of the featured character in this ornithological etude.

Lu means to play Une barque sur l’ocean as a highly chromatic sarabande whose ravishing chords cover an arpeggio bifurcated into F-sharp Minor and A Major. The flourishes in descending cascades after a transition into B-flat Major mark Lu as a master technician. The two notes, F-sharp and A clash, merge, separate, and sing in most miraculous colors. The waves stir, rise, and then trickle into a bass pattern quite reminiscent of the various ondines that inhabit French music’s sensuous waters. Dinu Lipatti immortalized the Alborada del gracioso for posterity, having immaculate control of the host of repeated notes in Spanish style. Lu’s guitars ring with vibrant authority as well. His textures clash and thin out, much as the morning mist clears to leave our “jester” smiling and dizzy from a night of feria. Lu imposes a series of differently nuanced bells along with the motion in sixteenths to establish the resonance of the La vallee des cloches. Whether Swiss or French church bells haunt the scene, the effect remains luminous and unearthly.

With the first of Rachmaninov’s 1911 Etudes Tableaux, Lu reveals a decidedly aggressive, bravura stance. Besides evoking subjective mental pictures, the eight pieces pay homage to Chopin, whom Rachmaninov forever admired as a creator of intensely etched miniatures. Only six had publication in the composer’s lifetime. They challenge Lu’s capacity for syncopes, massive chords in shifting time signatures, alternating hands, broad intervallic spans, expressive melodic contours, and a sense of dynamic balance that derives from Rachmaninov’s equally fierce respect for Liszt. The No. 2 in C Major exploits open fifths while blending Russian fervor and Chopin’s lyricism. The Etude in c minor shares a diaphanous mysticism with several of the preludes, a nocturne of wistful nostalgia. The martial d minor reminds us the composer’s 3 Russian Folksongs, Op. 41, perhaps illumined by tropes in Tchaikovsky. The e-flat minor combines late Debussy harmony with the character of a Scriabin toccata. The E-flat Major proffers a brazen march in a volatile spirit close to Gottschalk. Witty syncopes in bell tones ring throughout, while a middle section in tenths occupies any pianist who wishes to maintain strict tempo. Water does seem appropriate to the g minor, a sweet fantasy that fuses Debussy, Liszt, and Brahms, at once. The coda, however, nods to Chopin’s Ballade in the same key. The No. 8 in c-sharp minor appears like a menacing parody of the famed – or notorious – prelude in the same key, here fused to Bach chromatics. Lu gives the Etude the same broad spectrum and girth he might allot Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy.

Tan Dun’s Eight Memories in Watercolor (1979) derives from studies of Western music at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, mixed with a heimweh, homesickness in the form of Hunan folk songs. Moody or glittery, the works project a good knowledge of the keyboard in the manner of moments musicaux. Silver raindrops find their way into the palette, likely scented by Debussy and Ravel. If Liszt and Scarlatti appear in Chinese, they do so by way of Grieg’s sense of national compression. Paul Muni would have gained even more sensibility if these pieces had been available for The Good Earth.

—Gary Lemco

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