I once wrote a column about how commonly accepted standards of what's right and wrong in music doesn't always make good music, and how some of my favorite artists are the ones who do things that would sound completely wrong coming from anyone else.
To that list of unique performers, I would like to add Radu Lupu, who played at Carnegie Hall on January 24. The 67-year-old Romanian pianist walked on stage as unassumingly as if he were merely going to his practice piano and started playing without further ado -- no straightening his jacket, no taking a moment to compose himself for the ordeal ahead like so many pianists.
He started out with Four Impromptus (D.935) by Franz Schubert, a composer he is often associated with. Hearing Lupu play gives you the unusual feeling of not being there -- most performers, by the nature of their art, perform to express something or to evoke in their audience some feeling or reaction. Not Lupu. I felt as if he were alone in a semi-dark room, just playing for himself. It is a rare performer who can have so little self-consciousness, who can immerse himself so completely in the music that pleasing the 2,800 people in the auditorium is not the uppermost thought in his mind. The variations of the third impromptu flowed like a small brook, and as a brook, no matter how charming, does not flow for anyone's benefit, Lupu's Schubert flowed from the piano with a complete lack of affectation that cannot be imitated.
Lupu belies the notion that art is, by definition, artificial. This was true even in César Franck's Prelude, Choral and Fugue -- a fine example of romanticism in the French style; that is, an inflated and flamboyant romantic style with elaborate details and effects. Here he was more self-conscious than he had been in the Schubert, and explored various tones in velvety shades of dark blue and green, highlighted by pale moonlight. However, he still did not use pathos to appeal to the audience; a notable restraint considering that the music itself has a strong inclination to do that. Instead of employing heightened emotion to appeal to his listeners, the music Lupu created had a more poetic appeal -- he made me think of gilt statues wet in the rain.
Curiously, I do not think Lupu ever went up to a resounding fortissimo. He was bold in exploring the nuances and timbres of the smaller side of the dynamic scale, but volume-wise, there was nothing colossal, even in the climax. What is more curious is that this did not leave me at all dissatisfied. There was no feeling of anything lacking and I felt far more deeply affected than I had been by other, more overtly passionate interpretations of this piece.
In the second half, he presented Claude Debussy's Preludes Book II, fluidly creating an infinite range of textures and nuances. Here again, he never went beyond a modest forte, but we were nonetheless deeply satiated. Human emotions such as passion or tenderness cannot be attributed to his playing; each prelude was like a painting, giving us a voyeuristic sense of looking at a scene without participating in it.
It is so rare to hear a musician who does not pander to an audience's inclination to be impressed by the dramatic and the extreme highs and lows of emotion, that when one does come across such a performer, it leaves a lasting imprint. From anyone else, Lupu's approach would have failed to engage the audience, but he held us in thrall.
I feel that we have become so used to pianists who try to amaze us with their virtuosity, the intensity of their passions or the fine delicacy of their nuances that we have become a little numbed to all their machinations. When someone like Lupu plods unassumingly across the world's most famous stage (looking not a little like Johannes Brahms from a distance, with his white hair and beard,) and just starts playing as if he is at home alone, that gives us the feeling of having witnessed something very private and rare.
Later this week (January 31, February 2 and Feb 3) Lupu performs at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic and conductor Christoph von Dohnányi. I definitely will be going!