Piano Recital: Radu Lupu
Works by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)
Druckerei, Baden/CH, 2017-11-19
This was my second live encounter with Radu Lupu (*1945), this time, in the context of the Piano District series of concerts, in the “Druckerei Baden”, the former machine hall of a newspaper print shop (I’m referring to my first encounter below where I discuss the encore). Now this is used as a small concert venue (see my earlier concerts in this location for information). With its black walls, it’s a both sober and stylish, but also atmospheric and intimate place. This focuses the visitor’s view onto the little stage, equipped with a Steinway B-211.
The original concert announcement mentioned the Moment musicaux, op.94, D.780 and the Sonata in A minor, op.143, D.784 by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828), followed by the Kreisleriana, op.16 by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856). However, the artist recently changed his mind. He is now touring with the pure Schubert program discussed below, with works that the composer wrote between 1823 and 1828. I just realized: on 2017-12-05, the artist will present the same program at the LAC in Lugano.
The artist emerged from the darkness in the back of the hall, climbing the stage at a measured pace. An unassuming appearance, both thoughtful and restrained—just how he would be during the recital. He sat on a “normal” chair with backrest, relatively close to the keyboard, calm, immersed in his music, almost meditating while playing. In the sonatas, he was often humming along while playing. He did not appear to take notice of the audience. At least as from observing his profile (he did not look into the audience while playing), he did not show much, if any emotions. He passes his emotions through the music, his playing, not through facial expressions, gestures or body movements.
Schubert: Moment Musicaux, op.94, D.780
The Moment musicaux, op.94, D.780, are compositions from the period between 1823 and 1828—the last five years in the composer’s life. The annotations of the six pieces are as follows:
- Moderato (3/4, C major)
- Andantino (9/8, A♭ major)
- Allegro moderato (2/4, F minor)
- Moderato (2/4, C♯ minor)
- Allegro vivace (2/4, F minor)
- Allegretto (3/4, A♭ major)
The Wikipedia notes claim that the technical requirements in these pieces are not very high, but that the Moments musicaux require a delicate keyboard touch and a lot of sensitivity / empathy. The notes also claim that the pieces don’t excel through virtuosity, but rather through the richness in the atmospheres they evoke.
We know Radu Lupu as a master of the subtle, intermediate tones, known for the emotionality and refinement in his playing. His recital confirmed this, from the first tones up to the encore. The (expected) uniformity in the artist’s performance bears the danger of a certain monotony in my review. You will notice that my comments are getting “diluted” towards the second half of the concert. Assume that the comments to the Moments musicaux are valid for the entire concert (unless noted otherwise, of course).
Moment musical No.1: Moderato (C major)
Already the first one of the Moments musicaux was clearly setting the tone: measured, thoughtful, pensive, with a distinctly soft keyboard touch. Often, Lupu used a slight arpeggio, particularly with accents, or around a local climax. The dynamics: carefully crafted, restrained, typically between pp and mf, maybe f, rarely more. Nothing was forceful, no surprises in dynamics, such as sudden, unexpected ff eruptions. Quite to the contrary: often, Lupu only just hinted at accents.
Radu Lupu produced a singing tone, although certainly not constantly applying legato. The latter was applied selectively—certainly more in the mellow, gentle middle part. Often, the pianist applied a moderate non-legato—though never in a way that would break the flow of a melody.
Moment musical No.2: Andantino (A♭ major)
The second piece, just like the others in the series, followed almost attacca—Radu Lupu did not take his hands off the keyboard. This was a little intermezzo, with restrained cantilenas in the central part. With the return of the initial tune, the music lived up again somewhat. The short rebelling at the point where Schubert modulates to A major was momentary only, the music appeased again immediately, calmed down. Or was this already sadness, despair, or even resignation?
Moment musical No.3: Allegro moderato (F minor)
This one is short, and Radu Lupu appeared to emphasize the moderato part of the annotation: the piece is in 2/4, and the crotchets were definitely not Allegro. If at all, one could see an Allegro when reading the score as 4/8: in any case, the music sounded hesitant, melancholic, perhaps playful in a pensive, thoughtful way.
Moment musical No.4: Moderato (C♯ minor)
Also piece #4 remained of course bound to Radu Lupu’s personal style. The music appeared dreamy, flowing cautiously, careful also in the accents in the left hand. I sensed agogics primarily in the multi-bar phrases. Lupu’s keyboard touch remained delicate, cautious—he rather risked omitting notes than a single note that might stand out, possibly destroying the harmony and the flow.
Moment musical No.5: Allegro vivace (F minor)
Here at last, the pianist was more resolute, showed more grip—but still, the music remained thoughtful, restrained in the ff, secondary voices always got proper attention and weight. Yet, despite the vivace aspect, the mood, the spirit appeared broken.
Moment musical No.6: Allegretto (A♭ major)
In the last piece, Radu Lupu very much returned into his “introspective mode”, softening accents with arpeggios. Such (hinted) highlights remained momentary, as the pianist instantly returned to the basic, restrained atmosphere.
Schubert: Sonata in A minor, op.143, D.784
Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) composed his Sonata in A minor, op.143, D.784, in February 1823—it was suggested that this somber, dark sonata is a response to his illness the year before. There are three movements:
- Allegro giusto (4/4)
- Andante (2/2)
- Allegro vivace (3/4)
The sonata appeared in print 1839, long after the composer’s death. The opus number was assigned by the publisher.
This sonata has been described as “profound and sometimes almost obsessively tragic”. In Radu Lupu’s hands, this sonata was certainly profound, but not really expressing rebellion against his physical ailments or fighting against fate, nor really anger or obsessive, violent raging—quite a contrast to other interpretations. Lupu’s interpretation was definitely mature, but eruptions rather appeared as reminiscences from a rebelling past, many years back. The music sounded broken (in spirit), with softened dynamics.
I. Allegro giusto
The most violent moments were in the development part of the first movement. But this was merely momentary, as the music soon fell back into hesitant calando, as if it was to die off. I found the strength of Lupu’s interpretation to be in the soft segments, where he seemed to listen into the music’s undercurrents, especially around the Coda.
The movement is in split time. As such, the beginning was hardly Andante (rather Adagio)—the tempo annotation only made sense in the latter part (starting around bar 19), which really is in 4/4, or rather 12/8 time, with its quaver triplets. A serene movement, glowing in warm reminiscences!
III. Allegro vivace
In the very first bars, where hands of the pianist appear in a lively interchange of ascending and descending triplet figures, this movement seemed to remind of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757) in its clarity, the agile playing. However, that of course did not last, as Schubert disrupted the harmonious playing with dissonances, turning towards a more earnest, almost violent mood. And the ending approached a violent protest, with almost (relatively) furious sforzati.
Not everything was perfect in this performance. One could see that the artist was nearing his technical limits, there were occasional superficialities, one or the other missed key. However, perfection was not the goal here. It was still very impressive in its own way.
Would I recommend this as a recording? Yes, I definitely do—but I would also strongly advise not to keep or acquire this as the only recording—see also below.
Schubert: Sonata in A major, D.959
The Sonata in A major, D.959 is the middle one in the triad of Schubert’s final three piano sonatas (C minor, D.958; A major, D.959; B♭ major, D.960), all three are major masterworks. The A major sonata comes in four movements:
- Allegro (4/4)
- Andantino (3/8)
- Scherzo: Allegro vivace (3/4) — Trio: Un poco più lento (3/4)
- Rondo: Allegretto (4/4) – Presto
As expected, this sonata followed the path of the previous one: predominantly restrained, rhythmically and dynamically softened gestures. Not so much short-term eruptions, but the big phrases and gestures. No rage, no despair, rather reflexion and reminiscence:
The first thing that struck me was that the bass “echo” of the opening chords virtually disappeared in the decaying resonances from the f / fz right-hand chords. The latter stay throughout the bar—but the two bass notes (crotchets) at least have marcato marks. I’m sure this was an intended feature. The subsequent triplet sequences appeared very carefully played, reflected. The staccato quavers in the closing phrase of the exposition seemed as much prudent as the quaver triplets. Despite the length of the sonata, Radu Lupu repeated the exposition—just as he already observed every single repetition mark in the preceding works: very much appreciated! The second pass of the exposition appeared slightly milder, maybe also slightly clearer, lucid than the first one.
Just as Lupu did not “indulge in fury and rebellion”, also the development part appears like a reminiscence through the transparent screen of distant memories—here, where in some interpretations Schubert (at times) appears to fight his fate with the sheer beauty of his music. And sure: elegance was never a consideration in the pianist’s mind. It’s a really long movement—and the artist had at least one short memory lapse (fairly well, covered, though) in the recapitulation, and thereafter (he may have been irritated by the mishap), the coherence seemed to suffer noticeably, as if the artist suddenly was somewhat distracted, almost appeared in danger of getting lost.
Here, Radu Lupu took the Andantino 3/8 definitely in quavers—the music appeared (deliberately) static, stagnant: loneliness, forlornness, resignation, remembrance—no acute despair, let alone silent rebellion in the first part. Big phrases rather than “local articulation detail”. There is an earnest climax in the center, though, a “gradual outbreak of emotion”—whereafter the music falls back into hesitation, doubts, sorrow, regrets, painful thoughts, maybe? And the pianist humming along, immersed in the music himself…
III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio: Un poco più lento
Here, the number of little mishaps missed keys, little superficialities, omission of single notes, etc. appeared to grow. Was the artist depleting his physical / technical reserves? Probably, some degree of exhaustion just brought him closer to his physical and technical limits, decreased the “safety margin” in his playing. The Trio was somewhat more mild, mellow, but with the restrained interpretation of the Scherzo, there wasn’t quite as much difference in character between the two parts as one might have wished for.
IV. Rondo: Allegretto – Presto
Lupu played the first three movements attacca, without interruption. Prior to this big, demanding last movement, he did insert a short rest.
At the beginning, he appeared to have re-gained coherence, nicely highlighting the cantilenas in the various voices, but it was somewhat sad to see the technique reaching its limits, additional, brief memory lapses appear. The music may sound simple, the technical demands may not be towering—but in its length, the emotional strain in Schubert’s music definitely is vastly more demanding & challenging than what one might think. Still, towards the end, there were touching, even almost frightening moments, where Schubert suddenly—and repeatedly—stops the flow, prior to the Presto stretta. No, these were not memory lapses!
Encore — Schubert: 4 Impromptus, op.posth.142, D.935 — No.2 in A♭ major
To conclude the concert, Radu Lupu played an encore. It was probably not so much of a coincidence that he selected the same piece that he already used in the concert on 2016-06-01 in Zurich (after a Mozart piano concerto, back then): again by Franz Schubert, the second one of the 4 Impromptus, op.posth.142, D.935: Impromptu No.2 in A♭ major. That definitely was an excellent choice, which reconciled the listener with the deficiencies in the preceding sonata: pure, simple serenity, clarity, contemplation in a clear mood. This cleared up, calmed down the listener’s mind, ending the concert in a peaceful, settled atmosphere: excellent choice, excellent playing.
The above description of Radu Lupu’s recital sounds very much like “all in the same emotional corner”. And the concert really felt this way. That’s not to say that the pianist is to blame for this uniformity. In parts, it’s in the nature of Schubert’s late piano work. Also, selecting works from this one period only had the advantage of an inherent, mutual fit between the compositions.
I should also state that never in this recital I had the feeling that the music was (“merely”) celebrated, or otherwise surrounded by a solemn aura. I never doubted that every bar was rooted in deep, genuine emotions.
True, all pieces were taken from Schubert’s oeuvre from the last years of his life. When he composed them, Schubert must have been fully aware of his fatal medical diagnosis—and this can explain the resigned tone in these works. However, from works such as the Wanderer-Fantasie, op.15, D.760, and from other interpretations of the last piano sonatas, we know that the composer wasn’t just resigning. He certainly did fight, even violently, he did express his despair, the battle with his fate, as much as he expressed sadness.
Radu Lupu’s interpretation made all of these pieces (excepting the encore, of course) sound broken. As if they all were merely distant memories, resignation, remembrances passing an old mind—a mind at an age at least twice as high as what Schubert ever lived. Yes, that’s Lupu’s age (72)—Schubert was 31 when he died. However, in the end, it’s still Schubert’s work that we were meant to hear…
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.