Muscular Moodiness, Paired With Reflection

02.03.10
Radu Lupu
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

The pianist Radu Lupu appears to have cultivated an unflamboyant, even deliberately unglamorous approach to performing. He sits on a straight-backed chair rather than a piano bench, and his physical gestures at the keyboard are economical and focused, almost matter-of-fact. But Mr. Lupu’s placidity is deceptive: as an interpreter he is thoughtful and inventive, and given to reconsidering balances, tempos and dynamics in ways that make his readings highly personalized, though never to the point of distorting the music.

That said, it can take him a few moments to warm to the task. His account of Janacek’s hazily impressionistic “In the Mists,” which opened his recital at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday evening, began with an unpromising squareness, which melted away as the composer’s textures and rhythmic structures expanded in the opening Andante. Mr. Lupu moved easily between the music’s extremes, giving its gentler passages an alluring sparkle and bringing a tough muscularity to the more driven, impetuous sections that came to dominate the inner movements.

In Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, Mr. Lupu devoted as much energy to the score’s introspective qualities as to its high-tension bravura writing. Not that he gave short shrift to the grand passions from which the work draws its nickname: in the dense, fortissimo sections of the outer movements he produced the explosive sound and created the dramatic contours that any fan of Beethoven’s titanic side would expect.

But the most striking aspect of Mr. Lupu’s interpretation was his way of making the full work sound like a ruminative, often brooding free fantasy. Rhythmic freedom accounted for much of this effect: Mr. Lupu’s rubato yielded a sense of deeply felt inner exploration, and if phrasing was sometimes quirky, it invariably offered unusual but convincing ways of looking at this overfamiliar music.

Mr. Lupu devoted the second half of his program to an easygoing, expansive performance of Schubert’s Sonata in B flat (D. 960). As in the Beethoven, a fluid approach to tempo helped emphasize the music’s meditative side, but here the pervasive spirit was of patient reflection rather than churning anxiety. And the reading benefited from Mr. Lupu’s penchant for pulling out melodic lines — usually, though not always, the main themes — and letting them sing freely over a silkier accompanying texture.

He sustained the mood of the Schubert, though with a darker cast, in a beautifully etched account of a Brahms Intermezzo (Op. 118, No. 2), offered as an encore.