By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 2010; C03
In the super-serious world of classical music, it's refreshing to encounter a performer who appears to have a human connection to her music. This was a chief pleasure of the recital that the pianist Di Wu, 25, gave at the Chinese Embassy on Saturday night. She talked to the audience about things she personally responded to in the pieces she had chosen. More importantly, she demonstrated those things in the way she played them.
A finalist at this year's Cliburn competition, Di Wu has started a promising career, though without (yet) the top-tier impact of fellow Curtis alumni like Yuja Wang. Her Washington recital, presented by the Embassy Series, was also the first in the gargantuan new Chinese Embassy, completed in 2008, which has the grandiloquence and emptiness of a movie set.
Passing through huge foyers, under sculptural light fixtures and through the burble of fountains, the audience descended a red-carpeted staircase to the concert hall: a wood-paneled, low-ceilinged basement fitted out with ranks of folding chairs. After all of the architectural buildup, the space delivered the anticlimactic ambiance of a community theater in the Midwest.
Wu enlivened it, though, with a program that was varied on all fronts. It ranged from the elusive tangle of Schumann's "Davidsbündlertänze" (a tricky set of pieces to decode) to the fluidity of Ravel's "Miroirs" (Wu played all five pieces in this set, disdaining the idea of excerpting the most popular ones, like "Alborada del Gracioso," to play alone because "there was a reason he wrote them like that!") to the outright virtuosity of Liszt's Paraphrase on a Waltz from Gounod's "Faust."
The playing was also varied. At the start -- in a short Mazurka by Clara Schumann -- it was so mannered and prissy, with a calculated, porcelain finish, that I braced myself for a long evening. It turned out to be a whole lot better, though, than that stilted opening seemed to signal. She didn't altogether cast off the mannerisms, which resurfaced in places -- her liberal manhandling of the tempo in a couple of places was extreme -- but she showed an ability to be a lot more honest in her playing.
Robert Schumann wrote the "Davidsbündlertänze" for Clara, his wife, and quotes her Mazurka at the start. The piece's 18 sections seesaw between two self-proclaimed manifestations of Schumann's personality, Florestan (outgoing) and Eusebius (introspective). It was notable, given Wu's self-consciousness in Clara's piece, that her playing of the "Eusebius" sections in Robert's -- the more quiet, ruminative parts -- was particularly strong. If anything seemed mannered, it was Florestan's helter-skelter impetuosity.
This contrast also exemplified the pianist's narrative knack. It's facile to expect music merely to tell a story, but Di Wu did seem to respond to the subtleties of characterization (in the Schumann and Liszt) or the ideas of place and setting in the Ravel. Ravel appeared to be home turf for her, played fluidly and effortlessly; "Ravel's music," she said, revealingly, "is not something I have to make." But it was also slightly less vivid than the Schumann, as if the extra (audible) effort involved in "making" music also gave her playing a little more oomph. And the climax of "Une barque sur l'océan" (the third of the work's five vignettes) sounded a little shrill .
There was nothing shrill, though, about her Liszt, which came as another surprise, imbued with a full measure of fire and authority to compliment the sensitivity of her depiction of the music sung, in the opera, by Gounod's heroine Marguerite. It was an excellent finish. It was even rousing enough to overpower the crunch of ice from the folding tables at the side of the room that served as bars at intermission and the post-concert reception, where the bartenders, furthering the community-theater impression, focused on their work rather than on whatever music was going on in the background.