Review: Radu Lupu's Carnegie Hall recital

01.16.08
Radu Lupu
The New York Times

A Pianist Plays Middleman for Two Composers Who Spoke in Different Voices         

By BERNARD HOLLAND

Listeners could forget about thematic unity at Radu Lupu’s Carnegie Hall recital on Monday night. A sold-out house heard Schubert’s Piano Sonata in D (D. 850) before intermission and Debussy’s first book of “Préludes” after it. The Schubert represents the composer’s strenuous efforts to be big-time in the manner of Beethoven. The Debussy is a series of scenes painted by a master.

If much of Schubert’s best music drifts to the point of sleepwalking, the sonata’s first movement is wide awake, hammering out hard-headed little themes, then massaging them in orderly, Germanic fashion. The human touch comes in the lovely echoes that trail after these sharp attacks. The image of Schubert the cuddly tunesmith is deceptive. After sufficient lubrication at his tavern of choice, he was not too shy to announce his big ambitions and his qualifications to achieve them.

Debussy’s 12 pieces occupy a different world. People who find in them some sort of charming travelogue and little more would do well to remember the visual arts, in which mundane subjects are routinely raised beyond their ordinariness. You do not need sonata form to write great music.

Piano sound is a mysterious business, and Mr. Lupu manages to sit at one end of this sizable hall and fill it with color and clarity. There is no sense that he is trying hard to do so; it simply happens. If these two composers speak in different voices, they were unified here by Mr. Lupu’s tender respect for what the written score in each case was asking him to do.

The glory of the sonata is its slow movement: a long, nostalgic sigh, but one that thrives only if Schubert’s written admonition not to dawdle is observed. Its brief opening phrase occupies a harmonic world of vast and sudden change, offering modulations filled with delight and surprise.

How Schubert arrives at one place from another with the flick of a raised or lowered tone can be analyzed, but no one else seems to have been able to do it. Many, though not all, the finales Schubert wrote for his piano sonatas prefer to roam and amble rather than explode with excitement. Mr. Lupu was very good at catching the patient unhurriedness of this particular example and seemed deeply touched by its quiet goodbye.