Much has been said about Radu Lupu’s enigmatic, even ethereal style of playing. Given the infrequency with which this true master of the keyboard performs in public, this was indeed a rare opportunity to see a legend at work. Here in Amsterdam’s hallowed Concertgebouw, where the names of the illustrious great composers are inscribed into all elevated corners around the ceiling and where many of the great performers of the past have held court, entered the acclaimed Romanian pianist – bearded, professorial, even a touch eccentric in appearance, but carrying a dignified, serious and stately air.
Commencing the evening’s programme with a somewhat obscure set of Haydn Variations for keyboard in F minor, the scene was set. Very few pianists, even at this top level, possess such an extraordinary command of the instrument’s dynamics. For even the most pianissimo of pianissimos, Lupu seemed able to reduce the decibels to such a level of delicacy as to be almost indiscernible. The attention of the audience was help rapt, not even the dropping of a pin was to be heard! The sounds emanating from the piano were meditative in feel, spell-binding in execution. For the more technically au fait readers out there, it felt rather like the aural equivalent of a live emoji stream, visual reactions that might be observed exclusively during a Facebook live broadcast. Many pianists add visual drama and panache to their performance, often for the sake of it; Radu Lupu does not fall into this category. One gets the feeling that he could deliver a crashing fortissimo chord without flinching and even then, only when the score explicitly calls for it. This is a musician who aims to bring out the true meaning of the music above all else; to listen to Lupu is to discover your favourite repertoire anew.
Schumann’s Fantasy in C major was given ample space in which to breathe, highlighting new textures and bringing fresh perspectives to its unique narrative. As is typical of Schumann’s piano oeuvre, the pianist often has to cope with many simultaneous moving parts and Lupu admirably gave prominence to the inner melodies where most pianists would yield to temptation and bludgeon their way through. His is a truly unique voice.
In the second half, we were treated to a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, a set of 12 short character pieces commissioned in 1875 by the editor of the magazine Nouvellist. A logical choice given the clear influence of Schumann (even January’s subtitle “by the fireside” matching the very same from Kinderszenen). Although June’s Barcarolle and November’s Troika are perhaps the most well known of the set, there were many fresh discoveries to be made on this account, Lupu’s refined pianism overcoming some of the more complex passages with aplomb, such as the jingling right hand sleigh bells in the Troika. Warm and persistent applause tempted the grand old maestro back to the stage for the encore which they had demanded – the evening reaching its conclusion with a beautifully executed Schubert Impromptu. This was piano playing of the highest order: Lupu, a relic of a golden generation, professionally trained in the Russian pianistic tradition; I feel extremely privileged to have witnessed a master at work.