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In performance: Radu Lupu

In today's Washington Post: Pianist Radu Lupu, taking a quirky but rewarding path, by Anne Midgette.

Edited to add: Another take on the same concert from Ionarts.

By Anne Midgette  |  January 29, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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Comments

It definitely was a concert to remember, both for the good and bad. What a marvel at 64! I was captivated by Janecek's "In the Mist". It matched Lupu's mystical performance with perfection. The Beethoven I found lacked brilliance and the Schubert had its moments of excitment. I have two questions, does one typically accept the accompanying occasional humming and what was the encore piece? I fell in love with it.

Posted by: donahues11 | January 29, 2010 7:43 AM | Report abuse

We enjoyed the concert very much but agree that the interpretations and playing were quite different and personal. The Janecek was nice to discover - one wonders how it would sound played by someone else.

As to humming, it happens. (Pollini did the same on the same stage.) You don't really have a choice about accepting it - can't very well tell the pianist to be quiet.

The encore was Brahm's Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118, No.2. I think you'll like it even more hearing versions that have less quirky phrasing.

Posted by: AlwaysBiking | January 29, 2010 8:21 AM | Report abuse

I thought Ann Midgette's review was quite penetrating, and indeed I had used the same word -- muddy -- to describe the playing in a lot of the Beethoven. I accordingly disliked the Beethoven but liked the Schubert and the Brahms encore very much.
But I have a question -- we noticed that very soon after Lupu exited the stage for the intermission after the Beethoven, a technician hurried out and began to tinker with the piano. I had thought that some passages in the treble had sounded weak in the Beethoven and I wondered if the muddiness or other things I had disliked about that performance might have been partly or wholly attributable to the instrument. Does anyone know? Thanks.

Posted by: danjose | January 29, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

Great review! Fantastic concert!

I first heard Radu Lupu play at the Salle Pleyel, it seems even before he grew a beard. To call his playing "quirky" is probably accurate, but unfair. To be sure, it is idiosyncratic, but the man seems to have a meaningful personal relationship with every note he plays. As a result, his interpretations are more Zen-like than crowd-pleasing, and to call them quirky is an undeserved putdown.

As for the humming, Aaron Copeland used to sing out loud when he was conducting. I think that is great. Musicians are not servants performing for our pleasure, but artists performing for their own, and we should be grateful for being allowed to participate as spectators.

I was glad to be introduced to In the Mist, and found it to be a great complement to the context of the concert. I look forward to listening to it many more times in recording, if I can find one.

The Appassionata is one of the major monuments at the entrance to music and, despite its iconic status, is all-too-seldom performed. Perhaps that is good, so the crowd that has turned Bach and the 9th into jingles won't catch on to it. Lupu's interpretation seemed to have more notes than I remember from my other favorite performance, by Rudolf Serkin, whom I heard play it in the Teatro Colon, and whose recording I treasure. But any interpretation of this sonata is a gift from heaven, and you leave with the music slowly resounding inside of you (ok, of me) for a long time.

One thing I noted about the Schubert, not emphasized enough by Anne's review, was the magnificent use to which Schubert puts silences. It reminded me again of their importance.

Incidentally, that was not a technician tinkering with the piano, but one of Washington's foremost piano tuners retuning it.

Posted by: gauthier310 | January 29, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

I agree that Lupu is an idiosyncratic player, but "quirky" seems a dismissive term to use. He clearly has such an intimate relationship to the music. We preferred the Schubert to the Beethoven, in part because it was so obvious that was where his heart was--he practically caresses the music. The Janacek was wonderful, and the Brahms breathtaking. I can hear a "standard" recording of the music anytime on a CD--in a live concert, I want to see a great musician interpret the music anew, and bring it to life.

Posted by: Katya2 | January 29, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Anne, the comments above prompt something I've always wondered about. Why do reviewers generally leave before the inevitable encore (as you did on Weds night)? Also, how do reviewers deal with the equally inevitable standing ovation, particularly when you think it isn't merited?

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | January 29, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

The problem with some seasoned older pianist is that they have honned their craft to the upmost level and to the point that they do not how to perform pieces within each piece's proper context and range of expression. In other words, they force pieces into a wider range of sounds, touches, and ideas that are not appropriate for the pieces. Yes, they are capable of performing within each piece proper context, but the artistry(ego) of certain pianist starts to overshadow the essence of the music itself. This is the case of both Radu Lupu and Ivo Pogorelich, both pianists that I greatly admired. In Lupu's concert, he barely allowed the right hand to go beyond a mezzo-forte most of the time, thus the balance between hands was off-keeled, as if he was afraid of offending us with loud treble notes. However, due to the imbalance of sound, Lupu tried to create drama and tension with the left hand, but it came across as too self-conscious and even indulgent. Even then, in the beginning fortissimo chords of the Appasionata, the left-hand was so muted that the right hand chords could not create enough tension when needed. It seemed that Lupu had one mode of playing most of the time and he forced all the various pieces and movements into this mould.

However, such idiosyncratic approach was effective with the slow movements of the Beethoven and Schubert, and even the Brahms encore.

But the lack of drama, tension, and driving propulsion in the lines at times drove me crazy, and I wanted to kick the chair with frustration. What is sad is that pianists like Lupu and Pogorelich are so capable of presenting pieces within their proper style, but perhaps they have got too smart/artistic for their own good. This was a concert to remember, but not for the best of reasons.

Posted by: rvbigcat | January 29, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

newcriticalcritic: The tradition, possibly outdated, is that an encore is a gift from the performer to the audience, and therefore outside the reviewer's purview. I do, though, sometimes stay for the encore, and in this case it sounds like I missed something particularly wonderful.

As for standing ovations: another worthy critics' adage is that you should never blame the audience in a review. Criticizing a standing ovation comes, I think, perilously close to that. I only comment on the audience's response occasionally, if it really seems warranted: if, for instance, I disliked a performance but the audience responded particularly warmly, I think it might be useful to readers to know that.

Posted by: MidgetteA | January 29, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse

There are some great comments here, both pro and con. One striking thing about this recital is how much discussion it's engendered. Even at intermission I spoke to people who really hated it and people who really loved it; and the volume of comments, both here and to my direct e-mail address, indicates that something happened on Wednesday that really got to people, for better or worse. I can't think of another performance in the last year or so that left people so stirred up.

Posted by: MidgetteA | January 29, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

I was sitting in a Grand Tier Box in Strathmore, directly above the pianist. So I could clearly see his hands, and hear very well, but I was not able to catch what some reviewers sensed was over-use of the sustaining pedal in the Beethoven Sonata.

In general, I would agree with what Ms. Midgette and others have written about the superiority of the Schubert to the Beethoven. As a lover of Janacek, I was happy to finally hear "In the Mist" in a concert performance - A Czech pianist named Kvapil (I think that is the spelling) played it in Czech Republic at a SVU congress several summers ago. But the final entrance of the main rondo theme at the end of the Schubert D 959 sonata in Lupu's hands, almost as a whisper, seemed brilliant to my ears. Watching Lupu's motionless torso and darting hands reminded me of a recital from my German student days in the Stuttgart Liederhalle, back in the early 1970s, with Wilhelm Kempff, who played a Romantic program with a lot of Brahms and then remained on the stage for at least a dozen encores, while 300 or more of us stood in rapt attention in circles around the stage - something I have never have experienced on this side of the Atlantic.

The silences in the Schubert did remind me also of Anton Bruckner - who drives some listeners mad with his "pauses for breath" between themes. I thought that I finally understood what some Austrian music critics have been saying, that there is a direct link from Schubert to Bruckner, and perhaps Bruckner did take some of his maddening "silences" from the Schubert legacy. Bruckner compared it to the way a personal normally breathes.

One final note. I just came from the Austrian Embassy Series recital of Austrian pianist Matthias Soucek (who is soon to move to Los Angeles for what he perceives as greater musical opportunities). He played the same Schubert Sonata in A Major, D. 959, but quite differently (less idiosyncratic?) - I think that IONARTS may have a review tomorrow or later in the weekend. Soucek was more robust in his playing, but he also did not slight the quieter passages. And his performance of the three late Impromptus at the start of the recital was breathtaking. Another major pianist for the future whom we should keep an eye on.

And thank you, Ms. Midgette, for the idea of opening these critical blogs to other music-lovers. It does offer a forum where we can discuss our likes and dislikes in concerts - oh yes, the constant standing ovations of Washington audiences? Ms. Manners (i.e. Judith Martin) at a Choral American talk several years ago, was asked about that (by me, I seem to recall) and she responded, without losing a beat, that this, in her humble opinion, was simply further evidence of "Ovation Inflation."

Posted by: reithl | January 30, 2010 1:28 AM | Report abuse

Good Morning Anne,

As always, I was glad to see your review this morning. I was wondering what others thought about this mysterious performance. I left the theatre thinking that all of his interpretations, obviously a subjective thing, were off. The Janacek should've been thornier, more jagged and folky. The Appassionata was more pastorale and not Beethovenian. The Schubert also seemed too dreamy and not well defined. The piece I liked best and thought was the most authentic was the Brahms Intermezzo then the Janacek. All in all, as a whole, I felt that Radu Lupu's performance was In The Mists. Too dreamy. To airy. I guess the interesting question that often pops up is, how precise is musical notation and the composer's intention for his/her music? When does a musician push his/her artistic license/interpretation too far from what the composer intended?

All the best,

David
Global Around Town
http://www.globalaroundtown.blogspot.com

PS - I came home and listened to Firkusny playing In The Mists. And generally love Uchida performing Schubert as well as Kissin and Pollini.

Posted by: davidengel58 | January 30, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

I would like to take the liberty to respond to David, Global Around Town, about his question "how precise is musical notation and the composer's intention for his/her music?"

By Beethoven and Schubert's time, music notation was very precise. Beethoven insisted that his editors sent him the printed copies for his own edition so that the notations were as accurate and fiel to his wanting. The score of the Appasionata Sonata is replete with sudden changes of volumne and touches, with lots of subito's fortissimo's and piano's. With Schubert's score of the A Major Sonata, there is more variety of phrase structure, touches, and volumne changes. He adds 16th-note rests in the bass to indicate subtle touches (where most composers would not), staccato bass notes, and diminuendo signs to phrases that are actually growing in volumne. Here we see a master who is precise in his musical thought and more importantly the need to notate them in a way that pianist can read these intentions clearly.

I have played the Appasionata and I had been playing the Schubert days before and after the Lupu concert. That is why I posted the above blog about my thoughts about his approach to the above pieces. In reality, the music pieces speak for themselves. Much is found in just reading the score carefully and applying the notation in a most artful and artistic way. What Lupu did was ignore a lot of the directions in the score, thus his rather wayward and lackluster performance. The Schubert became cloyingly sweet after some time with the lack or imbalanced use of dramatic punch of the interspacing driving interludes.

The concert was much like having a buffet with all the dishes made with the same spice. They may all be good but the lack of a variety of flavors makes all eventually taste flat and banal after some time.

Posted by: rvbigcat | January 31, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

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