The Complexity of Simplicity
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata # 27
George Enescu Sonata # 1
Franz Schubert: Impromptu in C minor; Sonata D958
Radu Lupu (piano)
As a young man, Artur Rubinstein avoided the Sonata # 27 of Beethoven because he found the second movement shallow and repetitious. His teacher informed him that the great Anton Rubinstein (no relation) had often employed this piece to bring his audiences to tears and so the fledgling virtuoso changed his approach and imbued each reprise of the theme with deeper and deeper levels of emotion. Although I never shared Rubinstein’s reservations (I have always found this section to be the epitome of charm and grace), ever since I learned of them I have used this exercise in simplicity as a litmus test for pianists. Are they able to beguile us with gentleness and serenity, build a convincing emotional edifice, or simply fall beneath a house of musical cards? Since this problematic work appeared almost immediately on last evening’s recital program, it didn’t take long for me to form an opinion about Radu Lupu.
Witnessing this artist perform and hearing his music firsthand is a synaesthetic experience. One senses that there is something unusual even before the program begins. There is no piano bench on stage; there is instead a plain chair. Mr. Lupu, a rather corpulent Eastern European man, marches out stiffly and, with no regard for the patrons and ushers scurrying about, intones a very loud chord to begin the Schubert Impromptu. Sitting back in his chair, his body virtually motionless, only his fingers move slightly, his hands as little as possible, his arms only very occasionally for the emphasis of the fortissimo. Throughout the evening, it appeared as if Lupu might be falling asleep, so insensate was his frame, so vacant his expression. But oh, can this man play!
His Beethoven was decidedly indebted to the Rubinstein school, not only each repetition of the theme emotionally distinct, but the melody divided into two differently phrased sections, these differences themselves altered throughout. This fresh approach staved off any possibility of ennui and turned the movement more into a well-developed set of variations. By far the most beautiful work of the evening was the Enescu, a realization of what a piano sonata by his dear friend Maurice Ravel might have been. The music was suspended in a liquid atmosphere (my companion called it “womblike”) and revealed to be, in these expressive, though seemingly inert hands, extremely poetic. This is a composer of great depth, one of the masters of painting with dissonance whose opera Oedipe is an unjustly neglected treasure. Although famous in his day as a superb violinist (he was the teacher of Yehudi Menuhin), Enescu is really only resurrected and preserved today by dedicated Romanians. Radu Lupu, imbuing his presentations with such artistry and love, is a tremendous advocate for this gorgeous music.
With the illusion of little effort, Mr. Lupu proceeded after the interval to climb the Matterhorn of the great D958, a sonata so forbidding in its craggy majesty that it is the equal of any in the mature Beethovenian repertoire (if Schubert had a publisher like Beethoven, I’m sure that this work would have come down to posterity with a catchy nickname). This was a spectacular performance of a monumental essay, the pianist’s economy of motion mystifyingly able to convey the spectrum of effects with almost maddening ease. Mr. Lupu sat stonily throughout, but this must be a stance. If he were really as unmoved as he appeared outwardly, he would have been the only person in the hall unaffected by his deeply poetic playing. The interpretation did sacrifice some of the drama for the intricate structure, especially in the last movement (this is the sonata that so captivated critic Robert Schumann that he stated “one can hear the cold wind of the grave blowing across it”), but the delicacy of its overall expression more than compensated for any phrasing idiosyncrasies. Lupu also presented Schubert as an encore, leaving us all admiring his softness of touch in a moment musical. Following his old four-hand partner Murray Perahia by just one evening, Radu Lupu provided a splendid recital of refinement and sensitivity while hardly lifting a finger.
Frederick L. Kirshnit