Dazzling Work from a Young Chinese-American Pianist (No, Not That One)

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Brahms, and Prokofiev: Di Wu (piano), Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 3.12.2014 (BJ)

Haydn: Andante and Variations in F minor
Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Books 1 and 2
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75


After a momentary wobble with some disappointing Beethoven a couple of weeks ago, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s series of piano recitals got magnificently back on track with this evening of stunning performances by Di Wu. When I first heard this young Chinese-American pianist at the Olympic Music Festival in Washington state four years ago, I commented that Ms. Wu, “though in less Politically Correct times I might have been tempted to call her ‘a slip of a girl,’ is a big pianist, with a clearly major future.”

 That future seems by now to be in full bloom. “Big” is a term that can be applied to a number of dimensions. On this occasion, though it would be the reverse of accurate if applied to the pianist’s physique, it certainly included the technical and tonal demands of both the Brahms and the Prokofiev works. Ms. Wu drew every possible ounce of sonority and every conceivable color from them, phrasing with impeccable taste and eloquence, and balancing lines and textures through skillful but never excessive use of the sustaining pedal. This is one pianist who clearly listens with unfailing attention to the sounds the piano is making—which, though it ought always to be the case, unfortunately too often isn’t.

 What it was also riveting to observe, especially in the ten pieces Prokofiev arranged from his ballet, Romeo and Juliet, was the pianist’s sheer depth of involvement in the expressive message of the music. If I say that this involvement was as much physical as intellectual, I should not wish to give the impression that there was anything distracting or self-indulgent about her body language. Most readers are probably familiar by now with another pianist of Chinese heritage whose gestures and gyrations seem to be stuck onto the music from outside; the strong sensuality Ms. Wu communicated, by contrast, came unmistakably from within Prokofiev’s score, and it enhanced this listener’s attention to the music rather than drawing it away to focus on the musician.

 Altogether the brilliance and beauty of her playing, not only in those two scores but also in the great Haydn Andante and Variations in F minor that opened the program, seduced me to the point where I cannot find it in my heart to administer more than a perfunctory slap on Ms. Wu’s wrist from omitting the repeats in Haydn’s variations. At least she had the good sense to be consistent in the matter, omitting all of them rather than nonsensically playing some and not others as pianists occasionally do.

 She ended the evening with an encore in the shape of Feux d’artifice, from Book 2 of Debussy’s Preludes, and delivered just about the most dazzling performance of the piece I can recall hearing. Here were fireworks indeed, combining crystalline clarity with a weight of tone of which the word “big” offers a mere insubstantial hint. Di Wu can obviously play anything—I can’t wait to hear what she will treat us to next.

Bernard Jacobson

Leave a Comment