Radu Lupu at the Sheldonian Theatre

In the Mists
Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata)
Piano Sonata in A, D959

Radu Lupu (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 9 October, 2009
Venue: Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

Radu Lupu. Photograph: DeccaRadu Lupu was born in Romania in 1945. He won a whole series of prestigious competitions in the 1960s (including the Leeds International in 1968) and went on to make a series of distinguished recordings for the Decca SXL label, one of which included the Opus 117 Piano Pieces of Brahms: his playing of the first of these pieces must stand with Solomon’s account of the slow movement of the F minor Sonata (Opus 5) as the most perfect example of solo Brahms playing ever recorded.

Lupu is now rarely seen in the UK and his recording career seems to have ceased. This has of course made his appearances something of an event. His rather bushy long-haired mien and beard and his appearance at smaller venues for solo recitals has further added to the mystique that now surrounds him. So true to form Lupu had appeared in Brighton (a week earlier) and then at this recital in the acoustically pretty awful Sheldonian Theatre.

Janáček’s In the Mists opens with a rich seam of chromaticism and an angular right-hand arpeggio figure that will become an idée fixe. Here Lupu made no attempt to prettify the music and yet as the movement progressed he produced a myriad of tonal and dynamic variations. In the second movement he conjured up shades of Schumann and Ravel with a passage of sustained playing that was breathtaking and the last movement’s tempo ebbed and flowed in a controlled, yet seemingly spontaneous manner.

The ‘Appassionata’ was not so successful. There was a sense of doubt and questioning in the introduction, but although rubato was perfectly controlled, the tempo was marginally too slow, the numerous small variations disrupted the flow and there was lack of power in the climaxes. Some amends were made in the Andante con moto, which was beautifully voiced, but lacked spirituality. And the finale – with the repeat of the development observed – was marred by a leisurely tempo and a lack of true power. There were also some stabbing violent ff outbursts that only served to underline the weakness of the overall approach and conception.

Yet after the interval Lupu’s pianism became sublime. In the opening movement of the Schubert the first subject was powerful and the second brought a sense of Bach-like clarity and conversation. Here the tempo changes brought the music to life and once again the rubato was magnificent. Unfortunately Lupu ignored the exposition repeat but in the development there was a dazzling display of colours and dynamic variation and the coda was a miracle of rhythmic subtlety. It is impossible to describe the stunningly gorgeous sounds that Lupu conjured from the piano in the slow movement, while still conveying the sense of the macabre that haunts this sublime music. Nor was the central section’s assault on tonality underplayed. Here there was real violence, which led to a breathtaking return of the opening theme and an ethereally soft coda.

In the scherzo the rhythmic pointing was elfin, the trio slow and deeply felt, the final page improvisatory. The wonderful finale flowed by effortlessly, with exceptional balancing of the hands and inner parts. There was no tempo change for the second subject and the interjection of occasional rhythmic angularity seemed to enhance, rather than disrupt, the line and flow. There was a single piece of Schumann as an encore (a correspondent has subsequently advised that he believes the encore to have been Brahms’s Intermezzo in E minor, Opus 119/Number 2) which was played with enormous beauty.

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