Radu Lupu shows he's brilliant, as usual

02.12.08
Radu Lupu
Chicago Sun-Times

I once happened to sit in the same box with Radu Lupu for an orchestral concert at Milan's La Scala opera house. Knowing that the Romanian-born and -trained pianist does not give interviews, I figured that this was a rare chance to engage this uniquely perceptive performer in some conversation.

Curious about his famously narrow Austro-German repertoire, after trading some jokes (Lupu has a sly wit), I addressed him: "Maestro, I sometimes think that as you play fewer and fewer pieces, playing each of them better and better, a time will come when you will play only one piece but your performance of it will be unbelievable."

"How did you know?" he replied with a deadpan expression before relaxing his face into a smile.

As usual, Lupu, 62, did not speak to the audience or to journalists on his visit here for a Sunday afternoon recital. But he did part the curtains a bit, playing an extensive set of Debussy pieces as well as an infrequently performed sonata by his beloved Schubert, offering two encores, smiling several times at the cheering Orchestra Hall crowd and even waving to the audience.

Lupu has been before the public now for 50 years, and his formula varies little. He gives about 80 performances a year around the world (he has lived for many years in Lausanne in the French-speaking area of Switzerland) and makes only the occasional recording. He shuns piano benches and stools, sitting onstage instead on an office chair. He has parted his hair down the middle for half a century and lets his now gray beard grow fairly long between trims.

But if these are signs of eccentricity, then let's have more of them from others. For Lupu is about the music and nothing else. Even when he occasionally can be heard singing along with sections of a sonata, it is not a distraction but a demonstration of just how deeply one can become involved in a piece of music.

Sunday he offered two 40-minute works, neither of which is tackled by many other pianists and surely no one else gives them as a pair. Schubert's D Major Sonata, D. 850, is even less clearly structured than the Viennese genius' other often-sprawling piano works. But Lupu made a case for it as a composition of complete inner coherence. It was as if he were saying that there's nothing wrong with the sonata itself, just with those who do not take the time or have the talent to master it fully. And such mastery here included both remarkable power and rhythmic consistency and a delicacy in the far fingers of the right hand that was like filigree.

Years of study and performance of Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart and Schumann have brought Lupu to play Debussy in a manner that would never be mistaken for the French School. This was nothing less than an existential encounter with both the 12 sketches in Book I of the Preludes and the suite of pieces as a whole, formed here as a unity by Lupu rather than Debussy.

Or was it? By focusing so deeply on each individual portrait in sound and by pausing barely at all between them, Lupu demonstrated Debussy's harmonic invention and substance as much as his melodic gifts and ability to create moods and document impressions. Maybe they do form a totality after all. This is certainly not the only way to play these jewels of the early 20th century but how astonishing it was to hear them offered this way.

In a rare published conversation in 1991, Lupu observed, "Everyone tells a story differently, and that story should be told compellingly and spontaneously. If it is not compelling and convincing, it is without value." Such effective storytelling continued Sunday with the encores, also by Debussy, "From a Sketchbook" and, from Book II of the Preludes, "La puerto del vino," the first sounding almost like an improvisation, the second as if a habanera were being danced before us at the Alhambra itself.

If one could be any pianist today who else could one choose to be than Radu Lupu?