LSO/Davis, Lupu – 28 September

Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15

Radu Lupu (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 28 September, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Perhaps someone should be worrying that a Saturday night concert by the LSO with one of the greatest pianists should not draw a full house. The audience that did turn up made up for the empty seats by giving a much deserved ovation to thrilling music-making.

Could it have been the inclusion of Sibelius’s most elusive symphony that frightened away punters that might have come for numbers 2 or 5 ? The lack of heroics and soaring tunes have rather counted against the Sixth; amongst devoted Sibelians it is regarded as one of the most beautiful and original of all the Finnish master’s works.

With Sir Colin’s distinguished track record as a Sibelius conductor, it would not have been a surprise to hear a good performance – but this was nothing short of miraculous. The strings of the LSO sang with particular fervour and I swear that I literally saw sparks fly from the violins in the driving, repetitive, almost minimalist figures in the first movement. There was some beautiful playing from woodwind and harp in the strange slow waltz that takes the place of a slow movement, and finely balanced chords in the ’Scherzo’. Everything was calculated down to the last detail, in particular the unexpected silences and strangely inconclusive endings to the first three movements – but made to sound spontaneous and exciting, leaving this listener on the edge of his seat. A simply stunning account of a remarkable piece and recorded for LSO LIVE – put your order in now!

The massive, perhaps over-powering, heroics of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto seems rather at odds with that most poetic of pianists, Radu Lupu. At the risk of being shot down in the street I still find this concerto an impossible monster to tame, but I cannot imagine a more persuasive account than Lupu’s. Sat on his familiar straight-backed chair and making hardly any excessive movement at all, save the occasional stroke of his beard, it is impossible to see where the power comes from. The difference between Lupu and other pianists in this concerto is that even at the most dramatic, emotional and, dare I say it, over-stated moments, Brahms’s humanity is always allowed to shine through with playing of great warmth and refinement, at odds with the growling dissonance in the orchestra (again marvellously played) – a conflict of epic proportions, which is surely what Brahms had in mind.

It takes a great artist or indeed artists to stun a London audience into silence – stifle those coughers and shufflers – but that is precisely what happened in the slow movement. Pianist and orchestra vied with each to see who could get the softest pianissimo! Watching Lupu, it takes some understanding how he makes the piano speak, let alone sing, so beautifully at that volume. The orchestra responded as if playing chamber music – not a note out of place. At risk of running out of superlatives, the ’Finale’ was just as breathtaking and concluded a truly extraordinary performance. As the modest soloist insisted on sharing all of the applause with Sir Colin and the orchestra, who seemed equally in awe, only the fickleness of the musical world came to mind. There is at least one pianist that would probably fill the Barbican twice over and give a performance of mind-numbing tedium – so why the empty seats tonight?

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