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More of Radu Lupu's Twilight Schubert

Radu Lupu:
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Schubert Sonatas

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After an absence of over a decade, Washington Performing Arts Society brought the elusive Romanian pianist Radu Lupu back to Washington last night for an extraordinary recital, this time in the Music Center at Strathmore. In its basic outline -- slightly sloppy and ultimately weird Beethoven followed by equally weird but sublime Schubert -- it was quite similar to Lupu's Shriver Hall recital last year. Where the program differed most delightfully was by opening with Leoš Janáček's In the Mists, an autobiographical work from 1912 loosely describing the composer's sense of being lost as he grew old. With his aspirations frustrated by an unhappy domestic life and a provincial post, he reportedly felt on the edge of being lost in the mists of time. Lupu captured the work's gnomic qualities: a wandering sense of melody, a little perdu, full of modal inflections and folksong-like cantillation. The composer and pianist Thomas Adès wrote quite brilliantly about the work in an essay on Janáček's solo piano music in Janáček Studies, a collection of articles edited by Paul Wingfield:
In Janáček, not a note, not a gesture is rhetorical, is inertly for its own sake; every detail is to play for; every slightest instrumental or harmonic color fires its particular charge into the structure. [...] The greatness of In the Mists lies in its very claustrophobia, an austerity of means affecting every aspect of the music. The solo piano becomes a narrow space with four solid walls (p. 34).
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Janáček Studies
, ed. Paul Wingfield
Lupu gave the B section of the first movement a Debussy-hued wash of color and played the chromatically inflected salon waltz of the second movement as if its once-vivid colors were now a sepia-toned memory in a photograph. The feel of the Janáček seemed to explain Lupu's approach to all of the music on the program, playing it often not entirely in the keys, with extraordinary reserve and careful crafting of the tone and weight of each note. It did not really work for the Beethoven selection, one of the most outwardly oriented sonatas, op. 57 ("Appassionata"), in which Beethoven reacts to his own declining health not by retreating within but by howling to the skies. As in the "Pathétique" sonata, performed on the Baltimore recital, the work revealed some glaring technical shortcomings, as Lupu used a heavy sustaining pedal to gloss over many of the difficult passages (like the "cadenza" at the end of the first movement), often manipulating the tempo as well. It was Beethoven through a Janáček lens, with many facets to enjoy, especially the beautifully modeled and exquisitely voiced second movement, but that paled beside the superior polish of technicians like Maurizio Pollini or Till Fellner.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Pianist Radu Lupu, following a quirky but rewarding path (Washington Post, January 29)

John von Rhein, Radu Lupu returns, but in lackluster form (Chicago Tribune, February 2)

Bryant Manning, Radu Lupu brings Zen-like calm to piano concert (Chicago Sun-Times, February 2)

Lawrence A. Johnson, Lupu’s detached style shorts Schubert’s drama in mixed program (Chicago Classical Review, February 1)

Allan Kozinn, Muscular Moodiness, Paired With Reflection (New York Times, February 3)
Just like the Baltimore recital, which concluded with a magisterial performance of Schubert's great B-flat sonata, with an air of the valedictory about it, this program reached its apogee in the penultimate Schubert piano sonata (A major, D. 959). Recent performances or recordings of this autumnal sonata by Martin Helmchen and Till Fellner have stood out in my memory, and both were shattered by the enigmatic rendition sculpted by Lupu. Melodies like the first movement's main theme, redolent of lonely isolation, were played so quietly, almost as if submerged in thought, and the second movement, an Andantino heavy with regret, seemed murky, its shapes lost in shadow. Lupu took the scherzo at a fairly slow tempo, at least for the marking of Allegro vivace, making for a dance that was more subdued than clownish, with graceful hand-crossings in the trio. With Lupu taking almost no pause between any of the movements, the various memories and associated savoring or regretting seemed to run together in a near-jumble.

Although he has already recorded these late Schubert sonatas -- quite memorably, in fact -- Radu Lupu should consider recording at least the last three sonatas anew, because based on what we have heard in Baltimore and again last night at Strathmore, his interpretation of these rueful pieces these days is worth preserving. In my review of last year's recital, I noted of Lupu that "one could easily mistake his profile at the piano for that of the older Johannes Brahms." How delightful, then, to have some Brahms as an encore, the most restrained, fragile, wistful performance of the A major intermezzo (op. 118, no. 2). None of those dangerously delicious harmonies was indulged, filling the piece with a very Brahmsian feeling of subsumed, frustrated longing.

The next concert in the WPAS classical series will feature cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan (February 6, 8 pm) at the 6th and I Historic Synagogue.


Lindemann said...

Nice review. Wish I could have gone, especially after reading your account.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks, Andrew!

Unknown said...

I was hoping someone would review last nights concert. I thought a review might be titled:
Rau Lupu - In The Mist. The suggestion being that the whole concert was rather dreamily played. I found his interpretations of all the pieces to be unexpected. The Janacek should have been more jagged, and folky. Not so impressionistic. The appassionata seemed more pastorale than I have heard it. It did not seem Beethovenian. Then the Schubert also seemed softer, less defined than I would've thought it would be. The Brahms encore seemed to be the most spot on. My fav's were the Brahms and the Janacek.