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New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/03/2014 -  & January 30, 31, February 1, 2014 (Philadelphia)
Bedrich Smetana: Má Vlast: Vltava
Béla Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3, Sz. 119
Antonín Dvorák: Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Opus 60

Radu Lupu (Piano)
The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Music Director and Conductor)

R.Lupu, Y. Nézet-Séguin (© FM Classic/Wikimedia Commons)

If one could place adjectives over last night’s Philadelphia Orchestra concert, they would switch between “flowing” and “pulsating.” Smetana’s paean to the Danube flowed through all the right geological surroundings, Dvorák’s symphony pulsated through peasant dances and evening forays.

As for Béla Bartók, his Third Piano Concerto was written when he was dying. But not a moment of death crept into the performance by Radu Lupu and Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. I have heard performances where the second movement Adagio religioso was austere, mystic, even haunted. But neither pianist nor conductor must have been in that mood.

After all, with woodwinds (and xylophone) like that of the Philadelphia Orchestra, they may as well chirp and tweet with heartfelt avian sentiments. When you have a pianist like Radu Lupu, who sailed through the first movement as if blown by the wind, why make him work for austerity here? Let his fingers dangle fragments and wisps of songs. Both he and his orchestra alternated iridescences and sheens, Mr. Lupu casually fingering the arpeggios and runs with an almost casual adoration.

This was a Hungarian nocturnal countryside without apparitions, only the spirits of nature.

But then, Radu Lupu is a force unto himself. His beard turned white now, he resembles less Rasputin than Johannes Brahms, arms outstretched, enjoying the sounds of his own notes. And perhaps too much of his own notes. His obvious contentment in the Béla Bartók was perhaps at odds with Mr. Nézet-Séguin’s natural energy, but listeners could share in that comfort. After all, Mr. Lupu is so at home with the most difficult technical tricks, that one never has to consider is genius.

Radu Lupu, who has already been canonized by his cult figures, also has an ethereal way of performing the most brilliant figures. Again, this might have collided with the conductor’s energy during the piů tranquillo modal chords. But nothing bothers Mr. Lupu. He may have held his notes a fraction too long, but this only added to the natural resonance. He may have felt nonchalant about the Presto tempo. But this is Radu Lupu’s Bartók, somewhere between meditation and elegiac enjoyment. Like the pianist himself, we could only behold with our ears.

The two Czech works which bookended the Hungarian were never in doubt. A friend was reluctant to go here because “I don’t like Moldau, WQXR (a serious-music station) plays it all the time.”

True, but a) it is a beautiful piece, b) hearing it each time is, if not a revelation, at least a riverine laudation, c) hearing it live in Carnegie Hall cannot be duplicated on radio, and d) most important, the Philadelphia flutes-opening of The Moldau makes the opening of Siegfried seem like third-rate claptrap.

No, I don’t mean that. But the introduction, the luscious string theme, and even that frightening storm had its effects, if not always pleasing. (Mr. Nézet-Séguin made the “foamy waves and rocky chasms” seem like the 1812 Overture.)

Enough with the similes. The evening ended with another “riverrun” symphony, here Dvorák’s Sixth. Others make the obvious connection to Brahms’ Second, but Dvorák never needed to hoist himself up to create verdant excitement. He was always the peasant fiddler, his music was always both earthy and frolicsome. Mr. Nézet-Séguin obviously had enough of tranquil beauty by the third movement. Dvorák’s furiant became an exercise in corybantic madness, and while the conductor eased off a bit at the finale, that same high-voltage attitude continued to the final great chords.

Harry Rolnick



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