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Radu Lupu brings Zen-like calm to piano concert

Radu Lupu
Chicago Sun-Times

By Bryant Manning

Radu Lupu, a gentle Romanian pianist with a shaggy beard, radiates serenity like few artists can. A zen-like tranquility pervades much of his playing, but almost to a fault. Many attendees seemed put off by this quality at his recital Sunday afternoon at Orchestra Hall. For others his brand of music making sounds radically fresh, where all the conceptions of the standard repertoire seem to be challenged head on.

In a fascinating recital before a lively crowd, Lupu proved that clarity, restraint and purity of tone can go a long way with familiar scores. His singular style was most pronounced in a deeply meditative performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata.”

If ticketholders came in expecting heaven-storming Beethoven, they were in for a surprise. Instead, the 64-year-old Lupu favored constructing a narrative completely on his own terms, where the excitement emerged from control rather than aggression. Enigma would replace exuberance. The normally pounding Allegro assai became a series of peaceful vignettes.

Calm and cool might describe Lupu’s genius, but so does his gift of touch. The slow movement of the Beethoven — and later in the Schubert Piano Sonata D. 960 — showed a sensitivity and ease that maybe 1 out of 100 pianists could approximate. For all his eccentricities, he simply yields a beautiful tone…. This wasn’t an “Appassionata” for the ages, but was idiosyncratic in ways that revealed untapped depths in this time-honored music.

Schubert’s great B-flat Sonata, arguably his important contribution to the keyboard repertoire, evokes vast expanses of prairie land. Lupu quietly motored through it, navigating each turn with thoughtful precision and grace. Here Schubert’s most indelible melodies were songfully enhanced under Lupu’s large caressing fingers.

The pianist artfully balanced these two warhorses with Leos Janacek’s brooding “In the Mists,” a work of four distinct movements that jerk and pull at one another. Lupu inevitably brought to the fore a prevailing sense of solitude and wistful optimism. He was coaxed onstage for a single encore, where he glided through Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90, No. 3 in G-flat.

Tickets still remain for Lupu’s return in late February when he will perform with the Chicago Symphony in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3.