Behold the Master Sculptor
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Leos Janácek: In The Mist
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 23 in F minor (“Appassionata”), Op. 57
Franz Schubert: Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960
Radu Lupu (Piano)
R. Lupu (© Mary Robert/Decca)
”As pure as grace, As infinite as a man may undergo…”
The choice of pianists last night was axiomatic. At Lincoln Centre, Garrick Ohlsson, distinguished, personable, a brilliant American artist, programming an evening of Chopin during this 200th Anniversary month of Chopin’s birth. At Carnegie Hall, Radu Lupu, equally distinguished, but private, solitary, from the miasmic country where ancient Romans banished their unwanted citizens, playing an evening of solitary, inward, enigmatic music.
Even without the vow to ignore Chopin this month, my obvious choice was the 65-year-old Rumanian artist. Mr. Lupu, invariably dressed in black, his body language almost non-existent, plays with Shakespeare’s aforesaid “graceful purity” and a personal kind of “infinity” as well. More cerebral than sensual, he has a mind that encompasses the senses and the philosophical as well. Thus, the first piece, In The Mists contained mystery and logic together.
If Leos Janácek’s utterances were half-said, Mr. Lupu never relegated them to the mists. When he performed the Janácek, Mr. Lupu didn’t dwell on the ambiguous. He played the folk songs like a vagabond violinist in the Czech forest. This wispy chords and quick arpeggios didn’t float in midair, but were played as if no other notes were possible. But yes, it was a very mystic piece, since Mr. Lupu never distanced himself for his own ruminations. This is hardly easy music to absorb, but Mr. Lupu made it simple by playing the music without “comment”, letting the composer have his enigmatic say.
The Beethoven “Appassionata” held the audience breathless, simply because Mr. Lupu did not perform the usual fast, loud, impressive Beethoven sonata. His body was immobile, but his fingers did all the work. In this case, he played the opening with a broad, almost lackadaisical pace. No, nothing was relaxed, but with a drawing board of breadth, without urgency, he allowed us to hear every semi-quaver, all those dramatic sforzandi, It was more urgent than “passionate”. But Beethoven didn’t name the sonata: it was a 19th Century marketing ploy. Instead, Lupu became the emotional sculptor at work, carving out each measure.
The slow movement was played almost without pedal, almost dry, very classical. We have all heard great pianists bringing a rhythmical and emotional urgency to this great section, but Mr. Lupu took his time, once again allowing us into hidden nuances of the composing rather than the mood of the composer.
No pianist can resist beating the horses of the final Allegro, and this makes for a very impressive finale. Mr. Lupu took Beethoven’s command “Not too fast” literally. It was speedy enough at the end, but the lucidity allowed an insight into Beethoven’s workmanship.
And now the Schubert Sonata, perhaps the most private piece of all Can any pianist make those trills in the bass part of the whole movement? Is it possible to make these sudden transitions more than forays into the unexpected?
Having heard the finest pianist play this, the rapt audience obviously wondered how Mr. Lupu would handle it. In a rare interview, he had stated that each work has to sound spontaneous. That should be obvious, but in the Schubert it worked this way. The dynamics were purposely soft, even tender. The transition to the repeat was as mysterious as the bass trill. Not once did the great chords in the development have a massiveness about them. Instead, he seemed to lean into the piano, almost caressing the sound from them.
And now we come to the great Andante sostenuto, that almost impossible combination of death and transfiguration. The way Mr. Lupu played, one could almost visualize a teacher saying, “No! Put more feeling into it.!” Mr. Lupu, though, has that almost perverse attitude that Schubert put as much feeling into the notes as he possibly could, and the pianist simply has to allow them to speak for themselves. The work was again sculpted out–and the modulation from minor to major, one of the most beautiful measures in all piano literature–had a certainty about it. As if Mr. Lupu was saying, “Well, Schubert knew what he was doing. Why should I, a mere artist, try to intrude on his thoughts? He can speak for himself.”
Which Schubert did.
Mr. Lupu obviously enjoyed the performance, and actually showed a smile and a bow at the end. His one encore, a Brahms Intermezzo was like an address to us, telling us to relax, enjoy the music, don’t think. Become the notes.
Each time we hear Mr. Lupu, it is a different experience. Last night he was the composer, not the interpreter. The experience was different, some might say idiosyncratic, but the reality was that rarest feat of all, a singular word called integrity.