Ateş Orga’s 2001 International Piano profile

Where does one begin? The biographical landmarks are well known enough. Born 30 November 1945 in Galati, Rumania (that same Russified Galatz of Liszt’s period of quarantine before going to Constantinople). Student of Florica Musicescu and the Neuhauses father and son. Winner of the 1966 Van Cliburn, 1967 Enescu and 1969 Leeds competitions. Major débuts: 1969 – London recital, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 27 November; 1972 – North America (Cleveland/Barenboim, Chicago/Giulini); 1978 – Salzburg Festival (Berlin Philharmonic/Karajan). But otherwise not much else. Radu Lupu is an artist who guards his privacy zealously. He doesn’t speak publicly about music; disliking self-promotion and commercialisation, he doesn’t give interviews; he’d prefer it if no one wrote anything about him at all. Highly selective in the number of dates he takes on, likewise the artists with whom he works (the roster is formidable), he leaves the jet-setting circuit to others. He records (for Decca) but, to judge from his increasingly sparing visits to the studio – the bulk of his recordings date from between 1970 and 1982, many a legacy from the final years of Kingsway Hall and Decca’s best producers and balance engineers – would probably rather not. These days his heavy-haired, dark bearded, shamanic profile, his trademark ‘Paderewski’ chair at the piano, his whole demeanour of personal oneness yet public unapproachability, add up to one of the great unforgettable images of our time. A Lupu concert is never predictable, a Lupu recording never routine. Here is a man who may physically keep himself to himself. But once at the keyboard, his body wedded to his muse, his instrument, the reticence goes, he palpably bares his soul. Through reveries of sound and nuance, whispered memories and epic landscapes, ‘delivered as if in a trance from another world’ (Alain Lompech, Le Monde), he speaks the tongues of a grand visionary.

Van Cliburn, Leeds

However opposed in their demands and expectations, trans-Atlantic Van Cliburn (technical spectacular), European Leeds (musical emphasis) found the young Moscow-based (clean-shaven) Lupu comfortably superior to the challenge. His wins, emphatically blazing as they were, were not without controvery, however. In Farewell Recital (London: 1978), Gerald Moore recalled how at the Van Cliburn (his fellow jury including Wührer and Larrocha), ‘local celebrity’ Ezra Rachlin dissented especially strongly, his benchmark favouring dexterity above depth. ‘I regarded [Lupu] from the first moment I heard him,’ Moore was to write, ‘as an artist with a mind and imagination so exceptional that I found myself more and more impressed each time I heard him.’ Leeds, too, divided panel opinion. Magaloff thought ‘a new epoch had been initiated’. Curzon, ‘thankful to god’ though he was to have heard Lupu’s Beethoven C minor, stubbornly agreed to disagree. That televised concerto under Charles Groves remains in my memory as if now, remarkable as much for its musicality and imperious symphonicism as the descending razor-sharp scales at the ends of the first movement’s solo exposition and reprise, and the enormous theatre and crescendo of the re-transition. Plates 18-21 from Wendy Thompson’s and Fanny Waterman’s Piano Competition: the Story of the Leeds (London: 1990) devastatingly suggest the electricity of that occasion was there even in rehearsal. Here was no novice but a giant imperiously holding court, a young eagle glorying on the wing. ‘An unbroken joy, grand, poetic, a vivid almost spectacular music drama,’ declared William Mann in the London Times. ‘Mr Lupu is clearly destined to comfort and invigorate our lives for many years, whatever music he chooses to play.’ ‘A 23-year old aristocrat of the keyboard,’ admired Ernest Bradbury in the Musical Times, ‘breathtakingly poetic.’

Conceding a rare interview (Thompson-Waterman), Lupu reminds us that at the time of these Cold War sensitive competitions he was still a student at the Moscow Conservatoire, ‘in no hurry to start a career’. For him the Van Cliburn was then ‘“the greatest competition on earth” kind of thing,’ leaning towards ‘sensationalism’ and placing ‘too much emphasis on the sporting philosophy.’ Leeds by contrast left you ‘free to show one’s personality … I became a celebrity overnight, and I just had to face it. Before then, I must have felt subconsciously that I needed time to develop. I was very strong-minded, and all I felt was that I must cancel those concerts which didn’t seem to fit in with my studies. I didn’t want to be under pressure to learn something special for this or that concert. But after the Leeds my life changed completely. It’s unknown territory, there’s a lot of pressure, and one doesn’t know if one will cope with it.’ As to his own ‘ideal’ pianist, were he ever to sit on a jury? ‘A Horowitz, a Gould. I would look for someone who was telling me a story I could believe, someone who combined presentation, technique, knowledge, culture, sincerity, projection and personality – genuine playing.’

Colour, Touch, Structure – the Lupu arsenal

In a characteristically personal essay introducing Philips’ Great Pianists of the 20th Century compilation (1999) Piero Rattalino portrays Lupu as ‘a painter at the keyboard’ – hence his habitual chair in place of stool, his outwardly eccentric reclining stance appearing to contradict good tone production yet in point of fact helping him find his palatte. To his early audiences, he argues (controversially since memory and evidence suggest otherwise), his sound ‘was not large in volume. By way of compensating, his nuances were so numerous as to allow a phantasmagoric chiaroscuro: Lupu resembled a painter who, having banished from his palette pure red, blue and violet, had developed an infinite range of yellows, greens and browns. And those who heard him for the first time remained either shocked and sceptical or amazed and enchanted.’

In the Eastern Latin/Soviet environment where Lupu trained, you could be a mechanicus, you could play loudly, you could be velocity-dazzler, but only when you had mastered tone and colour might you stand at the doors of greatness. His teacher (and Lipatti’s), Florica Musicescu, writing to Dragos Tanasescu, Bucharest, 22 August 1939: ‘I believe that once a pianist … knows his métier – which means that he has perfect control over his instrument … – then, if he be a true artist, and not one content with a faithful reproduction of the musical text down to its minutest detail, he will seek to express the quality of emotion which a particular work evokes in him, and he will succeed in doing this without even being aware that he is doing so. He will not be satisfied until the sounds he produces will have the right quality and relationship to what he hears in his imagination. Just as a painter looks away from the canvas to the landscape which he paints as he sees it, in the same way a musician must listen again and again to make sure that the light and shade, the colour, make a perfect match with what he hears in his inner ear’ (Dragos Tanasescu & Grigore Bargauanu, Lipatti, rev ed London: 1996). In The Art of Piano Playing (Moscow: 1958, London: 1973) – invoking Anton Rubinstein’s ‘golden’ reflection on the time he’d invested in ‘making the piano sing’; paraphrasing the poet Alexander Blok: ‘What sort of person is a pianist? Is he a pianist because he has a good technique? No, of course not; he has a good technique because he is a pianist, because he finds meaning in sounds, the poetic content of music, its regular structure and harmony’ – Heinrich Neuhaus devoted a whole chapter to tone. The wisdoms of its twenty or so pages are a window on Lupu’s world. ‘Since music is a tonal art, the most important task, the primary duty of any performer is to work on tone … The concept of beauty of tone is not sensuously static but dialectic; the best tone, and consequently the most beautiful, is the one which renders a particular meaning in the best possible manner … It is only by demanding the impossible of the piano that you can obtain from it all that is possible … [to examine in close-up] play beautiful melodic passages … much slower than they should be played … The slowing-down of a process in time is the exact counterpart of the enlargement of an object in space … tone must be clothed in silence; it must be enshrined in silence like a jewel in a velvet case.’ In another chapter, dealing with what he calls the ‘first element’ of piano technique (playing a single note), he says: ‘If the player has imagination, then in … one note he can … express a variety of shades of feeling: tenderness, and daring, and anger, and Scriabin’s estatico and loneliness, emptiness and much more, of course, by imagining that that sound as a “past” and has a “future”. If you are a musician, and a pianist, and that means you love the sound of the piano, then this messing about with a single sound, a beautiful piano sound, this listening to the wonderful, trembling of the “silver” string, is already a great delight, you are already on the threshold of Art … on the path to artistic technique.’

Lupu, though, isn’t just a colourist. Rodin-like, he displays, too, a profound command of structure and perspective, as able to caress a miniature as cast a monument. His way with the big masterworks balances, magnificently, classical discipline with romantic flexibility, rigour with fantasy. His sonatas, vast in dynamic range and emotional tension, are toweringly symphonic, blazingly orchestrated journeys, growing out of huge bass groundswells and harmonic paragraphs oceanically directioned. Intimately understanding the creative process (his public début, in 1958 at the age of twelve, was in a recital of his own music; he favours his own cadenzas for Mozart’s K 467 Concerto and the Beethoven B flat), inquiring and absorbing ideas so freely (‘some from Furtwängler, Toscanini, everywhere’), his ability to provoke connections others miss make him the individual he is – an inspirational, inspiring musician compounded of pianist, conductor, composer, seeker, dreamer, a magician of the sensory nuances, a man in love with unsaid passions, undefined images, the earthy and the heady, with the very strong and the very gentle. As alchemists go, they don’t come any better.

Bending Time

Lupu, Max Loppert says in the New Grove, ‘has been criticised for rhythmic waywardness, for a sometimes mannered bending of the basic pulse’. Maybe that’s the impression. But the facts show a more subtle process. It’s not so much that he’s rhythmically wayward as fluidly, contextually, narratively responsive. He shapes faster groupings in particular with an expressive rubato applied more often to the beat than the bar. This can transform a passing-note, an appoggiatura, a fioritura from ordinariness into throat-catching memorability. Add the exceptional clarity of his articulation, his way of melodically investing ornament, and you have a special chemistry. And if he bends the momentum, lyrically holds back, ‘speaks’ his cadences like a fine actor, it’s less contrivance than the Neuhaus ‘beauty-equals-slow’ dictum applied. But it’s not only that. There’s a good musico-acoustic reason, too, as Sergiu Celibidache, Lupu’s compatriot (and with whom he worked in Munich), was given to airing. ‘Tempo fluctuates according to the complexity of the notes played (and heard) and their epiphenomena (the secondary sounds resulting from the division of the main note after being played on any instrument). In short, the more notes (and consequently more epiphenomena), the more time needed for them to develop and to be “digested” acoustically. Thus, the richer the music, the slower the tempo’ (Serge Ioan Celebidachi, DG Celibidache Edition).

The Lupu Sound

Jeremy Siepmann’s generalisation, ‘it is doubtful whether he has ever played an ugly note’, speaks for the refinement of sound and elegance of touch we’ve come to associate with Lupu. Witness, however, Dominic Gill, reviewing his London début. ‘Like all Neuhaus pupils he has an iron technique, and he always makes a beautiful sound. He orchestrates the piano, registers it, plays on its stops with great sensitivity: he can produce a pianissimo of unearthly Richter quietness, a clarion Gilels fortissimo, a sharp and marvellously evocative Cherkassky ghost-chord, struck fierce and loud with the soft-pedal down, all with the greatest of ease. And yet often he uses his piano stops rather as if that was what they were: effects and timbres to be pulled out, alternated, rung changes on, forgotting sometimes that the glory of the piano lies in the colours between the stops, the limitless shades and transitions from the blackest and most bristling ice to the most melting fire’ (Musical Times, January 1970).

In fashioning his sound pictures, choice of piano is critical. It’s long been apparent that Lupu places the greatest importance on characterful voicing, dolce treble registers with the capacity to ring when a note is ‘thrown’, and warm but clear bass ends, at once muted and harp-like yet, when need be, as focussed and intervallically separated as a trombone choir. It’s also clear, from the economy of his pedalling, that he relishes naturally resonant instruments where the sound quasi ‘ricochets’ before damping – doing as many wonderful things for staccato attack as legato bloom, turning percussive left-hand chords into pizzicato ones, scales into so many tumbling pearls, melodies into wistful sunbeams seen through rain.

‘Personal satisfaction’

The Austro-German greats – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert (especially Schubert), Schumann, Brahms – are Lupu’s universe, and, from the beginning he was given the chance to programme and record them. But, unlike his friends Barenboim and Perahia, or sages of the Brendel variety, he’s always been selective rather than compendious in what he wants to play – which, in some quarters, has led to accusations of limited repertory. Complete Schubert sonatas, all the Beethoven concertos (including the Choral Fantasy), sonata and late Brahms, yes. But little else otherwise – and even less on record. In his youth he had to tackle some of Moscow’s virtuoso warhorses – Liszt One, Prokofiev Two for the Van Cliburn final – its first movement, the only part of that performance he has authorised for release, confirming both long line and pukkered caprice (how romantically he breathes, sustains, the opening melody), limpid dexterity and voiced chording, together with a cadenza to defy mere mortals (forget Rachlin’s dismal orchestral support, though). He played Bartók’s Out of Doors at Leeds – ferociously attuned. The Copland Sonata at Aldeburgh (1972) – a refreshingly thoughtful reading of classical leanness, beautiful chording and painfully touched sonorities, the finale a long, sad poem of open-plain luminosity and granite crescendos, intensely concentrated, not a brittle note anywhere. Shchedrin’s quirky little, tone/dynamic challenging Humoresque at the 1974 IPA Royal Festival Hall Gala – accorded the full ‘silent film’ treatment. And André Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in 1975, written specially for him. Notwithstanding some expressively modulated Chopin forays (a Liszt Sonata too), his profile, however, was even in his student days (friends speak in awe of big-boned Brahms) of a thinking klaviermeister, disposed towards large-scale classical and post-classical structures rather than romantic fable. These days, that’s rather changed. His smaller Schubert, his extraordinary Schumann, show the bard in him. He’s taken into his repertory, or rather feels ready to play in public if not yet record, music that tells stories, explores colours and sonorities, lives its moods through the plastic phrases and rhythms of verbal speech. Music spiritually far from the Rhenish/Danubian heartlands: Mussorgsky’s Pictures, Tchaikovsky’s Seasons, Janacek’s Sonata 1.X.1905. ‘I’m always looking for new horizons, but I haven’t done much 20th century music. I feel that one should put some effort into living in one’s own century, but I don’t see any point in trying to prove that one is unlimited, universal. One should do oneself a favour by approaching those things which give the most personal satisfaction’ (Thompson-Waterman).


The Recordings

Lupu’s discography is remarkable. Virtually free of re-makes, it’s modest. A lot is analogue. Most is either solo or chamber music. Debussy’s Violin Sonata (an incisive reading with Kyung Wha Chung, May 1977) is the only significant 20th century presence. Much is the product of a young man between just twenty-five and thirty-five – given the profound musicality and maturity of playing, the recreative wisdoms and insights, the subtleties of tone, rhythm and conception displayed, a fact not always easy to reconcile.

The studio, however, can be a taming, disciplining, cleansing environment. On disc you won’t always catch the high-octane, temperamentally charged player of the concert platform – impulsive, letting fly, risking knife-edge stakes, reinforcing the text, thundering out lower octaves to make a point. His concertos show this clearly. All are distinguished, the handful of Mozarts not least and especially the Double with Perahia (June 1988) – yet how many catch fire? Often you feel it’s a matter of conductor. Lupu’s the sort of ensemble pianist who’ll only really shine if he’s making music with someone on the same wavelength. He’s always been an interactive, reactive player: listen to his gracious Mozart and Beethoven piano-and-wind Quintets from Amsterdam (June 1984). Like his Grieg and Schumann under Previn (January/June 1973), his Brahms D minor with de Waart (November 1974) is powerful – yet somehow polite, emotionally reserved, dare one say even uncommited. Nine years later, 7 April 1983, he joined Tennstedt and the LPO for a broadcast from the Royal Festival Hall. Rising to a director so demonstrably in sympathy with the angst and theatre, the gestures and sound, of the music, relishing a superior (new) Steinway to boot, he gave that night one of the truly all-great Brahms readings, the talk of London for seasons to come. Two minutes longer overall, my log shows, with the first two movements more deliberately timed and weighted. Brahms may not have indulged in bottom A’s but Lupu gifted them to us anyway, loud and soft, invoking a spine-tingling world of cannons and cathedrals, poetic veils and gipsy seduction, roaring storms and embracing sensuality. Never mind the occasional ensemble lapses, here, you felt, was the authentic Brahmsian experience – emotionally naked, vulnerable, heroic, passionate. With octaves hurled like thunderbolts from the heavens, chorales hewn out of rock, and trills articulated as lightly as thistle-down, the pianism was staggering, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The volcanic first movement reprise, the end of the Adagio, the Hungarian intonations, the cadenzas and coda of the finale. Will I ever hear better? I doubt it. Even the 1996 Prom account with Abbado’s Berliners [the last of Lupu’s eight Prom appearances] couldn’t rekindle the moment.


A similar experience was a Beethoven Fourth at the Proms. I forget when or with whom [20 July 1982, BBC Northern Symphony/Günther Herbig] but I remember vividly Lupu reclining disinterestedly in his chair, ostensibly bored, unconcerned for the audience crushing the platform. Once started, though, the revelation, the limpid inevitability and voicing of the opening, the elan of the finale, the chamber-like discourse with orchestra, was spell-binding. Like the C minor, with its sturm und drang tension and romantically aching celestical reflection, the Elysian landscape, the summer storms, of the G major have always brought the best out of Lupu. In an on-line diary of the Academy-of-St-Martin’s May 1999 Italian tour, the cellist Naomi Butterworth notes reverentially how ‘having this great artist with us to play Beethoven’s Fourth … is a reason for living and his rendering of the opening phrase is almost unsurpassable’.*

Along with the crystalline pianism of the First, the Fourth (Tel Aviv, February 1977) is perhaps the best of Lupu’s cycle with Mehta, whom early critics (not least Trevor Harvey in Gramophone) found promising more than he, or the Israel Philharmonic, could deliver. Another case, it seems, of chemistry – or lack of. In concert I recollect characterful British cycles with Zinman (Bristol 1976) and Muti (London 1981) generating greater concentration, involvement and underlining. What interests more about Lupu/Mehta are passing changes to the text – no absolute purist, Lupu has never shirked from reinforcing passages, filling out chords, or even changing octave to enhance the dramatic message. Thus in the First Concerto (like Nos 2, 3 and 5, digitised in March 1979) he takes the option at the tricky reprise of the opening allegro to finger the descending fortissimo octave scale, strengthening the dynamic by bringing forward and doubling at the octave the low G of the following bar to coincide with the right-hand F. (Justifying his brisk tempo, he opts for the shorter of Beethoven’s two completed cadenzas, only prolonging the final trill and adding a left-hand dominant chord.) The Third, despite its scales and machined trills, lacklustre, restrained and not very brio in comparison to what one has heard so many times in concert, is fitful. Leading back to the first movement recapitulation tutti, there’s Lupu’s trademark extra bass G octave on the fourth beat of bar 308 (so thrilling at Leeds). And left to himself – Beethoven’s cadenza – he aspires to his own beauties, only his left-hand elaboration beneath the first trill of bar 480 seeming odd. The finale gels the best: pearly playing, classical elegance, not a misplaced accent, effortlessly shaped and phrased cadenzas, magical judgement of the A flat music of the middle episode and an evocative colouring (plus balancing) of the secco/pedalled, unison/harmony A flat/G sharp octaves, bars 257ff (reminiscent of the identically timed 1971 Kovacevich/Davis version but tenderer, anticipating Ax).

How conductors weight the three primary chordal colums of the Emperor’s introduction, how they fire the first subject, can swing a performance. Of Lupu’s two studio recordings, Mehta is serviceable on the side of flaccid. But it’s Iosif Conta, fractionally faster, and his work-a-day radio orchestra, recorded within months of Leeds (the Marble Hall of the Press House, Bucharest February 1970), who, with their virile heroism, lyric song and bacchanalian elation, most ideally prepare the ground. Thirteen seconds separate the two accounts: it feels like much more.

In the public concertos Lupu Beethovenises Beethoven. In the private sonatas he Schubertises him. On record not all are uniformly successful: he handles the Waldstein better these days than back in 1972. But his Pathétique and Moonlight are fine readings. Where others get on with the music, he takes pains to beautify it, savouring sonorities, lingering on phrases, carving strong bass lines up which to raise grand buildings. In his hands the first movement of the Moonlight has little to do with the past but everything to do with the future. He invests its lines with romantic bleakness, mournfully tolls its dotted funeral rhythms, shapes the curves of its ascending and descending arpeggios with subtle rubato, lingeringly voices the inner textures, drops the bass down a ‘Russian’ octave at the reprise to create subterranean Slavonic images. And, as in the Pathétique, shows the art of slow playing at its most tensioned and imaginatively consequential.


Standing or falling by his convictions, Lupu divided his London début between Beethoven (C minor Variations, the late A flat Sonata) and Schubert (first book of Impromptus, A minor Sonata D 784). In Schubert, Gill believed, ‘he gave us his finest and most stirring playing … the slow, swing tread of the first movement of the … sonata was projected with splendid urgency, arched through to a radiant major conclusion; and its finale, taken fast, full of gusts and driving wind, was lit with energy, compelling and sure.’ Ever since, Schubert has dominated his repertory. Solo (including a 1979 London sonata cycle). Four hands (with Perahia – their Sony CD a Gramophone Award winner in 1986; more recently on Teldec and in concert with Barenboim – a roof-raising ‘orchestral’ Grand Duo at Carnegie Hall last November). The violin sonatas and C major Fantasy (with Szymon Goldberg, who’d been on the Leeds jury – as with the complete Mozart cycle, sympatico readings, never over-stated). The songs (with Barbara Hendricks – enchanted innocents abroad). The A minor was the first Schubert sonata he recorded for Decca, and what a magnificent reading it is. Symphonic, Mahlerian (first movement, bars 34ff), sadly sung (the andante), arrogantly brilliant (the triplet octaves at the end of the finale, played at high speed without short cuts). All that’s missing is the voicing you’ll sometimes hear in concert. Years ago, more than anyone else, it was Lupu who showed what it was to register Schubert’s textures, to find melodies where none apparently existed. In the first movement, for example, I once heard him vary the exposition repeat of the second subject by bringing out the tenor line from bars 68-73, making the left-hand D sharp/C sharp/B descent of 70 and 72 an especially telling poignancy.

The other big A minor Sonata, D 845 (January 1979), finds him, not for the first time, assuming the role of conductor. This is a sweeping orchestral reading, outstandingly coloured – from reinforced tutti chords and octaves; through hammering kettle drums and the wonderfully delineated changes of woodwind tessitura at the start of the first movement development section (subsequently, the tenor tune reflection, bars 105ff); to the interplay of simplicity, decoration and Wienerwald nostalgia comprising the slow variation movement, the instrumentally imagined solo/tutti scherzo (with its hauntingly contrasted, voiced trio), and the pointed discourse, articulation, key changes and mood-shifts of the finale. Detail is everything. Structure likewise: placing the pivotal E major triad at the end of the exposition is never easy to make natural: a tempo it can sound abrupt, too much rit and it can become contrived. Lupu’s phrased easing back is cadencing made supreme. The first movement coda shows finds him at his most intrinsically powerful. He wields the music with inexorable drive, never losing tone in the high register chords, climaxing in thunderous double octaves. On disc it’s impressive, in recital (New York, February 1996, for instance) torrential, the music roaring like so many Titans, the piano held in iron grip.

In the late sonatas Lupu convinces most in the C minor and A major. The G major (April 1974) and B flat (December 1991, US Grammy), with exposition repeats but at a speed clearly owing nothing to Richter’s pensiveness, compel less, for all their evident distinction and beauty of sound. Predictably penetrating second subject groups and thoughtful slow movements, of course, plus bitter-sweet dances (especially the G major) – but overall maybe just too careful, too matter-of-fact, too producer-conscious. In his second Aldeburgh Festival recital (1971), slower overall by nearly two minutes yet paradoxically finding less dying swan than a capacity for elation and keyboard exultation, he played the B flat with a dynamic aggression and youthful flamboyance yielding quite different rewards, at once thrilling. Not the dimension Richter and Brendel have brought to this sonata, but charismatically persuasive.

The most consistent feature of Lupu’s Schubert is the architectural sensibility he brings to the music, within and between movements. Few pianists control form so well. The first movements of the A minor sonatas, the ‘little’ A major, D 664 (December 1991), are so absolutely ‘right’ that it’s practically impossible to imagine them any other way. Of a whole, poised, timed, phrased, they are beautifully contained experiences. This rightness of delivery applies equally to the exquisiteness of the Impromptus (June 1982) and Moments musicaux (July 1981, similarly recorded in the Friedrich Ebert Halle, Hamburg). Remastered in Decca’s Legends collection, the Impromptus are about insight and the most immaculate pianism, arresting honesty and unfussed sentiment. Nothing rushes, everything breathes, the music speaks with the pathos and diction of Schumann’s Poet. In his liner notes (1999), Bryce Morrison summarises that Lupu, ‘in common with Peters Pears, Benjamin Britten and Sviatoslav Richter, has surely redefined the parameters of Schubert interpretation, accentuating his spiritual range and depth of feeling. And, retrospectively, has anyone … ever played the G flat Impromptu with a more devout sense of beauty, or convinced us so totally that this is among the loveliest slow melodies in the world; music too eloquent to be translated into spoken language, verse or song?’

Then there’s the witty, the psychological cameo (Butterworth observes Lupu’s outward diffidence, ‘his usual slightly down expression’ yet ‘his underlying humour just below the surface’). In the bewitchingly conjured finale of the D major Sonata, D 850 (Enescu Festival, Bucharest, September 1981), he fashions a wondrous, unforgettable panorama of Biedermeier innocence and frown, Haydnesque clocks and thrown away jewels, legato regret and staccatissimo fancy. He moderates the speed, holding back for the beautiful, all but stopping for the final ppp three bars, as if to anticipate what Schubert was to qualify over a year later at the same juncture of the G major. The instrument resonates, the pedalling is spare, you can touch the clarity. If, as Rattalino suggests, Lupu’s melancholy, dusky, desolate handling of the Moments musicaux turns them into ‘the pianistic equivelant of Winterreise’, then his way with this rondo is to echo the rusticities of Schöne Müllerin.

Schumann, Brahms

Rattalino pursues this further discussing Schumann’s Kinderszenen (January 1993), suggesting that Lupu’s intention was to transport the music ‘into the world of Brechtian epic’. ‘Childhood,’ he says, ‘was traditionally viewed as the domain of innocence, but Freud shockingly discovered in infancy many dark things whose existence had not even been suspected. Lupu is on Freud’s side.’ Those ‘dark things’ are everywhere – the sfp of Hasche-Mann, the same piece’s C major rit into a sudden menacingly placed left-hand F sharp sf, bar 15 first time around; the discomfortingly matter-of-fact Traumerei (three seconds slower than Horowitz [Moscow 1986] yet so different in emphasis); the manic rocking and shaking of Ritter vom Steckenpferd (at dotted minim circa 90-94 some notches faster than Schumann’s 80 marking); the sudden sleep-in-a-foreign-land of Kind im Einschlummern, its final bass crotcher A freed of romantic prolongation. Lupu’s Schumann wasn’t always interesting (look at the early Concerto recording) – but the past ten years have witness some astonishing journeys of discovery. In particular his Humoresque and Kreisleriana (January 1993/Edison Award 1996 – aristocratic, intuitive, stylistically deep playing of phenomenal distinction) achieve a rare cohesiveness and inevitability.

Intuition, inevitability, anguish, muscular power, the canvas painted broad inform Lupu’s Brahms. His late pieces (November 1970/July 1976) inhabit cleaner, purer waters than tradition passes down. Not for him the smoky, blurred approach. Here you find Brahms as writ, you get what you hear in your mind’s ear, you become a part of his sphere – all grandly imposing, symphonically elated, rhythmically exultant, tenderly loving, deeply emotional, never gratuitous, the tapestry luxuriantly woven. Discussing Lupu’s E flat Intermezzo from Op 117 – taken very slowly, Rattalino speaks relevantly of ‘a series of panels sculpted in bas-relief as in the portal of a Gothic cathedral’. Contrasting the tradition referenced by Backhaus (1935) – who, he perceives, ‘sings’ the piece ‘with the most intimate feeling, as might an old blind bard accompanying himself on the harp, frequently spreading the chords into arpeggios, breathing before each line of verse, employing a good deal of rubato in the regular metre, never changing the colour throughout’.

Not so immediate is the F minor Sonata (Hamburg, June 1981). Everything is in place, yet it doesn’t seem to want to fire. The downside of ‘beauty-equals-slow’? Certainly with the lyrical subjects, chorale tunes of the flanking movements, and trio section of the scherzo so held back (or produced) the music has difficulty moving onwards. In Philadelphia a little over a year ago Lupu controlled the situation by pacing these imposed tempo contrasts less forcefully, and by omitting the exposition repeat of the first movement. He further opted for weightier chorales (especially in the finale, the left hand octave graces nobly underpinning and overtoning the texture); and at the start of the closing Andante molto paragraph of the first slow movement, invited us, vintage style, to hear Brahms’s tenor thumb voicing so unwisely smoothed out on the recording.


Lupu the piano master telling stories you could believe makes us think, opens our eyes to the score, makes us listen afresh. Rattalino likens him inimitably to ‘a rock that deflects the flow of the current as opposed to a fish that becomes a part of it. … [a man] who, with his physical presence, says nothing to the world of what he is: one of the great leading figures in musical history.’

Lausanne, 17 April 2022, aged seventy-six. Requiescat in pace.

With thanks to the late Ateş Tanin, Toronto,

for making available listening material

* Lupu’s farewell London appearance was with this Concerto, Paavo Järvi conducting the Philharmonia (3 February 2019).

Sad news: pianist Radu Lupu has died at the age of 76. Audio of him playing Schubert’s A-minor Sonata, D784; concert performance from 1974.