Beethoven Piano Concertos; Five Piano Sonatas
With an 11-CD reissue Decca offers a 60th birthday salute to one of the greatest artists of our time. Together with Martha Argerich (light years away in temperament and character), Radu Lupu is surely the most richly inclusive of all living pianists and his decision not to record again (his last disc dates from 1993) is deeply regrettable. It is almost as if he felt his work was somehow too vulnerable and private to withstand sustained scrutiny and he remains sadly unconvinced of the permanent value of his artistry or the special challenge and opportunity of recording.
So all credit to Decca for reminding us of Lupu’s vision and his near palpable contact with music’s well-spring and life-force. Indeed, criticism falls silent when faced with such bounty. True, all these performances have been tirelessly assessed and yet, listening again to Lupu’s Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert, I was once more struck by the way even his subtlest insights are expressed with such unfaltering lucidity. Time and again the ‘enormous effort of interpretation’ (Tippett) is resolved in playing of a disarming simplicity.
‘A lyricist in a thousand’, Lupu has, naturally, placed Schubert at the centre of his repertoire and conjured from a seemingly recalcitrant black-and-white instrument a range of vocal colours and nuances that even a Souzay or Fischer-Dieskau might envy. Heard at his greatest in the sombre A minor Sonata, D845, he recreates a place where even the most outwardly genial phrase is troubled and despairing. Then turn to the A major Sonata’s finale (D664) and you hear a pianist who can change from blazing defiance to a delectable lightness and vivacity. In the shorter, less familiar sonatas, too, Lupu makes you aware of Schubert’s tirelessly fecund imagination, of his experimenting with ideas and procedures far ahead of his time.
Then there is his Beethoven where a thousand tiny details are momentarily caught rather than strenuously highlighted. His performances of the concertos are magical, showing the most concentrated thought; it would be hard to imagine more deft or finely shaded performances of Nos 1 and 2. In the Third Concerto’s Largo his typical trancelike state is a far cry from the more robust eloquence of a Schnabel or Serkin and Lupu’s legendary lyricism is an ideal match for the Fourth Concerto, where his way of qualifying Beethoven’s vigour with a restraining hand is wholly characteristic. In the Fifth Concerto, too, Lupu’s self-effacement allows Beethoven his own voice and in doing so accentuates the composer’s greatness as well as creating a unique poetic aura and ambience.
In Brahms’s Op 117-19, music like ‘the golden lustre of parks in autumn, and the austere black and white of winter walks’ (William Ritter), Lupu draws you into his confidence as only he can. Try Op 118 No 4, in Lupu’s hands a hallucinatory play of flickering half-lights, or hear him lost in bittersweet reflection in No 6 (among the greatest of all short piano works) and you will find him in all his quality. The halting progressions of Op 119 No 2 (something Rachmaninov later remembered in his F major Prelude, Op 32 No 7) is perfectly qualified by its rapturous middle section and throughout all these pieces Lupu draws you into a crepuscular world of such poetic resource that you finally emerge blinking into the often banal reality of everyday life.
For Lupu, music is a language beyond language. He strikes gold virtually every time and how wonderful it is when profound musicianship is backed by such a transcendental technical sheen. These records (given Lupu’s recent and regrettable decision) are a reminder and a remembrance.