Monday, February 1, 2010


January 31, 2010
Symphony Center Presents
Radu Lupu, piano
Janacek, In the Mists
Beethoven, Piano Sonata in F-minor "Appasionata"
Schubert, Piano Sonata in B-flat D960

The word "mystic" gets thrown around a lot with Radu Lupu, so much so that you expect him to perform in a robe while burning incense. But his stage presence is perfectly ordinary, though he does sit in a chair instead of on a piano bench. Mystic is also used to refer to his playing; I would prefer the words Romantic, personal, and maybe idiosyncratic. Lupu's recital on Sunday was one of the most remarkable events I have attended in Chicago this season, rivaling last week's Rite with the CSO and the Berlin Philharmonic's Brahms Second in November. His Janacek and Beethoven, though beautiful and certainly unique, were nothing to write home about. The Schubert, though, really struck me. I have a deep love for the B-flat Sonata, having discovered two years ago in preparation for Alfred Brendel's performance (also at Symphony Center) in his farewell tour. After listening to renditions by Richter and Rudolf Serkin, Brendel's performance was a bit of a let down: elegantly phrased, poised, and delicate, but lacking the warmth and capital-R Romanticism of those earlier recordings. Just as "mystic" sticks to Lupu, "Apollonian" seems to be one of those traits that is always glued to Brendel; in this instance, it made sense.

Lupu's performance of the sonata, though, drew me into the piece in ways I had never heard it before. His performance, if anything, was anti Classical, anti Apollonian. In many ways, he defies, or even breaks down, the idea of structure. The recapitulation in the first movement returned at a faster speed than he originally played it. In the pulsing heartbeats of the adagio, structure dissolved into color; Lupu seemed to care more about the chiming sound of the pulses than their role in the harmony, changing their placement almost haphazardly with rubato. This is not a bad thing. I don't think every performer has to treat structure as the greatest paradigm, elucidating the clarity of the exposition-development-recap. Sometimes emphasis of structure can come at the expense of a great performance (as was the case with Brendel's Schubert), like revealing the scaffolding of a building. With big, twenty minute movements like in the Schubert structural clarity is often a helpful guide, but is not necessary. Lupu transcended structure, creating music which sounded very much in the moment, music moving through time rather than through space. His rhapsodic account of the sonata drove a wedge through Schubert's Classical form, Romanticizing it without losing any sense of intellectual rigor. This didn't always work, of course. The Sturm und Drang section of the finale lacked intensity because Lupu played with the rhythms too drastically. But overall, the effect was magical, matching the divine beauty of his legendary recording of Brahms' piano works.

Lupu returns to Symphony Center at the end of February to play Beethoven's Third Concerto with the CSO, under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda. The program also features Saariaho's Orion, and Rachmaninoff's dreadful First Symphony after intermission. Is there any way to just buy a ticket for the first half?


  1. I was going to say, Billy, that you and Bryant Manning seemed to "get" Radu (along with Allan Kozinn in the NY TImes when Lupu played the program two days later at Carnegie Hal) while the other two Chicago scribblers didn't. But I see that you already noted that! ;-) (I was in NYC last weekend so missed the recital. ;-( ) You won't get much general disagreement from me on the Rachmaninoff upcoming at the CSO. Except that Noseda really believes in this piece and Geoffrey Norris of the Daily Telegraph (London), probably the Rach authority, calls Noseda's BBC Phil recording of the piece a "landmark" in which the conductor "demonstrates the music's power, eloquent beauty and structural cohesion." I believe it's to be the CSO première of the much-maligned (including by its composer) piece. But maybe we all should hear it live once with a spirited advocate on the podium.

  2. Yes, I think Lupu is one of those cases where it's really interesting to see such a variety of reviews---the Times, a few Chicago ones, Anne Midgette, etc. Obviously all those performances were different, but you really get a sense of what the critics value in an interpretation of a warhorse.

    I admire your open-mindedness about Rachmaninoff--I will try to catch the performance, certainly for the Saariaho (which I think is being performed because of the prize Northwestern gave her).