Pianist’s interpretation is intelligent and original, but emotionless

Radu Lupu plays like an old man.

On Monday night in Sprague Hall, Radu Lupu, a Romanian pianist of world renown, performed an all-Schumann program for an audience eager to gobble up every nuance of his unique performance style. From the posters plastered on every billboard on every corner of campus, audience members walked into the hall with an image in their heads of Lupu’s bearded, bear-like face in imposing black and white. Stereotypes of the tortured, powerful virtuoso of the Eastern European tradition towered in the minds of eager piano students clutching their programs in anticipation. When the lights dimmed and the stage door opened, applause began even before Lupu appeared on the stage.

My previous experience with Radu Lupu was limited, so I arrived with no preconceived notions of his playing. The prospect of an all-Schumann concert was perhaps somewhat daunting to me, always eager for fresh concepts and coloristic variety. Schumann’s lush romantic style is something that often invites trite or overexaggerated interpretations, especially in younger performers, but a young performer, Lupu is not.

As my friend said during intermission, “This concert makes me like Schumann.” It was true. Lupu’s style was perfectly suited to the pieces he chose (the “Arabeske in C major,” the “Kreisleriana” and the “Fantasy in C major”) and his intelligent interpretation of the music let me hear it in a fresh and colorful light. He approaches the piano like a weathered grand master. Though he slumps in his chair, cocks his head to one side, and lifts his arms to the keyboard as if one moment later he may collapse from exhaustion, the intelligence, thoughtfulness and warmth of his performance confirms the suspicion that he is in complete control.

It is not passionate playing — he does not give in to the tempting conventions of indulgent dynamic swells and repeated tempo variations. Neither his quietest moments nor his climaxes convey a release of tension. Rather, his playing creates the atmosphere of an old man, sentimentally remembering his romantic days gone by, but now retelling them with the wisdom and even temper of age.

Only for the most demanding, rapid sections of the “Kreisleriana” did Lupu sit erect. In these difficult passages, there may have been the occasional fudgings or blunders, but the Brahmsian image of a pianist brought elegance to his turns and surprising attention to oft forgotten inner voices. In phrases where one voice is typically highlighted and others subjugated, Lupu managed to weave independent lines, following each with their own individual character. On occasion his transitions felt rushed, but a grand master has no wish to linger needlessly on the tail of sentimentality.

Though only in his fifties, Radu Lupu plays like an old man, and that is exactly what the program called for. Gentle power and crafted phrasing are virtues hard won by the hot blooded hotshots of the concert piano world. ÊHad he been tackling a wild animal like Scriabin or even the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata, however, this charming reticence would have surely ended in bloodshed.

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