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The Master-Builder

New York
Carnegie Hall
01/14/2008 -  
Franz Schubert: Sonata in D major, D. 850

Claude Debussy: Preludes, Book I

Radu Lupu (piano)

The Radu Lupu mystique has been well-defined for the past 35 years. With his saturnine eyes and Rasputin-like beard, the image is of a Central European magician stroking the piano with lustrous fingers, the agony of a spectral Lisztian world.

The reality is more realistic, and far more interesting than as an avatar of an earlier age. Now in his 60’s, Lupu’s hair and beard are white and salt-and-pepper. Anything but ingratiating, he strides on stage without a glance at the sold-out Carnegie Hall audience. Then he sits in his straight chair – no, he almost slouches like Brahms in that famous image – and begins not so much to play, as to construct his music.

And that construction, that sense of form and architecture, was the secret to Lupu’s performance last night. In Franz Schubert’s D Major Sonata, he turned the enigmatic first movement into a structure approaching the towering, ending the work with an almost angelic simplicity. With Debussy’s Preludes, one felt less the lusciousness of the individual lines as Debussy’s instinctual classical arrangement of each piece.

The most important quality in both works is that one literally had to listen to every note. Being distracted for a single measure, one felt that Lupu’s master-building would be unbalanced.

Lupu opened the Schubert like the opening of a Beethoven sonata, with a bang. Those looking for a songful sonata would have looked in vain. Instead, Lupu emphasized the martial calls, the dazzling runs up the scale (his virtuosity can never be underestimated), and only in the one “tuneful” section, a “poco piu lento” (a little slower) did he emphasise the more “conventional” composer. (The reason appears in the next paragraph.) The sudden harmonic transition to the development came like a shock, but each trumpet call, chord and brief bit of virtuosity was built into one structure.

Whether he meant to or not, the far “melodious” bars seemed to become, under Lupu’s fingers, the basis of that delightful slow movement. Quite rightly, he never came close to sentimentality, but “with motion” as Schubert directed, it sounded a bit hasty. Which is why the delicate beauty of the spoke for itself, never had to be stressed as an inferior pianist would do.

The Scherzo, with its yin-yang contrast between hard and soft, and the wonderful landler trio, whizzed by all too quickly. The finale movement has always so naïve, so ingenuous, that one wonders whether Schubert simply tacked it on. Lupu perhaps thought of it as one of the “missing” movements of the “Unfinished” symphony, for which Schubert never found the right gravitas. The simplicity was its own reward.

Those expecting an ethereal Debussy might have been disappointed. Lupu’s was a Debussy of line and contour rather than sensory inhalation. The pedal was pressed sparingly, so the sounds seemed totally through the fingers. So rather than an endless galleries of picture – remember, Debussy only appended the titles not at the beginning of each prelude but at their ends, in parentheses – he played each as if they were pure music.

Lupu did offer surprises throughout. The opening Danseuses de Delphes was almost dull in its slowness, until one realized that this was indeed a “religious” march, more Asian than medieval. The pause before the tarantella of Les Collines d’Anacapri was like a universal hush. The texture of Voiles was almost of the cotton sails themselves. The final Minstrels were not broadly humorous, but had a delicacy under his hands. Not so much a reproduction but an appreciation.

But it was in La Cathédrale engloutie (“The Engulfed Cathedral”) that Lupu’s classic form transcended the title. Rather than seeing the watery image, this was a precise, evocative image of the most touching piano.

After the two encores (Ravel and Schubert), one left Carnegie Hall not with the usual picture-postcard Preludes, but with that rare feeling of being engulfed it another cathedral, where religious devotion dwarfed adoration, but where the experience made some successful stabs at eternity.

CODA: After the concert I recalled an interview with Yehudi Menuhin in Hong Kong several years ago. I asked him, “Maestro, out of the thousands of musicians with whom you’ve performed, who do you think was the greatest?”

The question was not the brightest in the world, but he answered in a semi-quaver of a second. “It was George Enescu, of course. A great violinist, composer and most of all, a great teacher.”

And of course a Rumanian as well. There’s something about that country…

Harry Rolnick



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