In the Mists
Piano Sonata in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata)
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960
Radu Lupu (piano)
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 2 February, 2010
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Entering Carnegie Hall, one immediately knew that this was not going to be an ordinary recital. The hall lights were dimmed, creating a hushed atmosphere, and in front of the piano was a simple chair, Radu Lupu’s trademark, instead of the usual upholstered leather stool. Eschewing the traditional tails or tuxedo as well in favor of a plain black suit and charcoal shirt, the pianist projected immense dignity and artistic presence as he proceeded across the stage to the instrument.
A very important contribution to the success of the recital was the magnificent Hamburg Steinway. One assumes that artists at Carnegie Hall will have the best possible instrument at their disposal, but one rarely encounters a piano with such a sweet tone. Moreover it was tuned, regulated and voiced to perfection, making Lupu’s range of sonorities, his precise balances, and his many shades of pianissimo possible.
Lupu opened on a subdued note with Janáček’s In the Mists, a collection of four pieces, which are much more consonant and chordal than the title might imply. Instead of Impressionistic haze, Lupu emphasized the work’s simplicity and its undertones of longing and nostalgia, most notably in the third movement.
In Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata Lupu took an explorative approach, shying away from big, extroverted gestures. There was sufficient power at the grand moments – like the outbursts in the first movement, and especially the coda of the finale – but these outbursts were more like mighty rolling thunder than explosive flashes of lightning. Although Beethoven’s character may have been more akin to the latter, prone as he was to temper tantrums, Lupu’s concept thus illuminated this famous work from a different angle, emphasising its Classical heritage over its Romantic tendencies. His careful balancing of voices came to the fore in the slow movement, where many sonorities and secondary melodies emerged to provide new insights.
The pianist’s introspective style of playing found its perfect expression in Schubert’s B flat Sonata. One barely dared to breathe, as he drew the audience into most intimate communication with the music (except for intrusions by mobile phones, which went off at some of the softest passages throughout the evening!); it was a very private performance he allowed us to share. The third movement is marked Allegro vivace con delicatezza – with delicacy – a description Lupu liberally applied to the whole sonata. As in the Beethoven, his voicing was exquisite, creating ever-shifting layers of foreground and background, and the Andante was even more dreamlike and misty than the Janáček pieces had been. Only at the very end, the coda of the finale, did he open up the sound, to startling effect.
Staying in a subdued mood, we were treated to a sublime performance of Brahms’s Intermezzo in A (Opus 118/Number 2) and, responding to lengthy applause, after the house-lights had already been turned up, a concluding ‘Des Abends’ from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke (Opus 12). As serious and introverted Lupu had been all evening, the warm and enthusiastic reception brought an appreciative smile to his face.