No one can explain why any given era has a dearth or a plethora of musicians with certain specialties. But after a decade or so without pianists who get the lyrically maniacal music of Robert Schumann, several wonderful talents now on the horizon - Vassily Primakov from Russia and Gloria Campaner in Italy - have been joined by the 25-year-old China-born, American-trained Di Wu.
She made her Philadelphia recital debut Sunday, presented at the Trinity Center by Astral Artists, in a program full of charisma, steely technique, and keen musical intelligence - qualities that no doubt earned her finalist status at the Van Cliburn Competition this summer. But for all the gleaming surfaces of her Gaspard de la nuit (Ravel) and the comprehension she brought to Ballad(e) out of the Blues - Superstar Etude No. 3 (Aaron Jay Kernis), her performance of Schumann's Davidbundlertanze most clearly suggests she has an interesting future, not simply a bright one.
Forget the comfortable blanket of sound used by past greats such as Wilhelm Kempff to unite the music's emotional extremes - or the usual cut-and-dried temperamental polarities. In Wu's performance, the worst musical tantrums yielded something delicate. Usually safe, reflective passages had interior rumblings. Emotional peaks were thrillingly (and frighteningly) escalated through the use of sonority and tempo, suggesting no limits to the music's extremes and no predicting where it would lead.
Wu micro-phrased the piece without micromanaging it, always with an unexpected color or phrase organization to remind you that the superb legato lines of Mozart aren't appropriate for the constantly morphing Schumann. Also ingenious was her presentation of the piece: It followed the never-heard "Mazurka" of Schumann's wife, Clara Wieck, the opening chords of which he quotes in Davidbundlertanze, showing how dramatically the same notes can be transformed by strong musical personalities.
Kernis' invitingly eccentric Ballad(e), heard in the concert's second half, commemorated his composer-in-residence status with Astral, and is a piece that harks back to the jazz and pop ballads he heard while growing up in Bensalem. References to those genres are clear - in a gleefully dismembered way. He captured the extemporaneous quality of jazz, but with juxtaposed tonal centers and the kind of crazy fantasy that made the piece a series of hallucinations (as opposed to variations) on a central idea. It's about as eventful as an etude can be, and, thanks to Wu's knockout performance, you could get a lot out of the music from a single hearing.