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February 12, 2002

Radu Lupu: polishing the music till it shines


Radu Lupu

Symphony Center

January 27


Spending an extended period of time in the presence of an indubitably wise person makes me giddy. Sitting in the lower right balcony of Symphony Center, I looked up each time to see a Tolstoy of the keys, telling me stories in the richest and most personal language. Naturally, I became like a schoolboy. Furthermore, I came to be possessed of the feeling that there was not one but a group of men sharing the stage with Radu Lupu: Ludwig Von Beethoven, Franz Schubert, and George Enescu. And from the first note, there began, as it were, a dialogue between these men that would plumb the depths of their musical hearts.

Following a very charming introduction in the form of Schubert's Impromptu No. 1 in C-minor, Lupu brought Beethoven to the stage to deliver a meditation on nature, the Piano Sonata No. 27 in E-minor. In this music, Lupu released a feeling like the rhythms of nature coursing through you. He made wind and water like bells flowing out of some mysterious source of light. He brought the beauty of nature into the quiet hall. And he did so with no head banging, no distorted facial expressions, and no groans of delight, but with an intense moderation.

He did what is lost to so many performers in this day and age, which is to give the piece of music the benefit of the doubt. He let the piece speak its mind, leaving his own ideas and passions backstage. He supplicated himself before the greatness of the work and its author, the result produced being a splendid internal order of the kind that makes one feel more like oneself, each note falling perfectly into place, one after the next, in answer to that which came before and in pronouncement of what was to come after.

There is, I believe, a great misconception among performers: a piece of music is like a ball of clay that must be skillfully shaped into some unique brand of interpretation. In this way the music will continue to say new things though it may have been written 100 years ago. Lupu, on the other hand, seems to treat the music as a valuable artifact, the restoration of which is up to the musician. The superb performance of a piece is then a product of how well the musician can clear away what dirt the music has gathered over the years that it may be heard in its original brilliance.

The result of such an interpretation was nothing short of deeply emotional phrases, humorous to the point of laughter, fearful so as to make one stiff, sad to the point of tears. I could not even think about the details of his playing per se while the piece was going on, I was so drawn in by the voice of the music.

Is this not the experience one hopes for at a concert, that which makes it worthwhile? Please pardon my lack of systematic analysis, those of you who were expecting as much, but I have not confused the aim of this review, that is, to answer this question: was this concert worthwhile and why?

The Schubert Sonata in C-minor was no more a disappointment, veritably Dante-esque in scope. Here, in Lupu's performance, was displayed a piercing confrontation of two contrasting characters. Their voices emerge in the first movement as out of the ground, slowly growing, taking on shape, limbs, bodies, and thoughts. One is grand, dark and tall, chasing what he doesn't know through thick, dark woods, and the other is bright and unconscious of time, walking with a light step, kicking up leaves, and constantly seeing newness in the common sights around him. In their developed form, their starkly divergent paths cross in a gray clearing, and this moment of confrontation becomes the turning point in the plot of the piece. This is the beginning of struggle for them both. As their musical themes explore one another, what follows is doubt, sinking into confusion, exhaustion, exhilaration and an end characterized by either insanity or enlightenment. Though I wasn't sure who went what way. It was a breathtaking performance and a great way to end the show, aside from the two encores. I have gotten ahead of myself, though with good reason, so as to save the choicest morsels and the best wine for last.

The Enescu Piano Sonata No. 1 is a meditation in the vein of Beethoven that develops in the style of Schubert. Its passages flow with the same rhythm and consistency as concerned thoughts, and it is so very personal that I have had quite a difficult time hashing out my thoughts regarding the piece into words. One might say generally that it is a meditation on memory and how a particular person interacts with his memories in light of his experience with a barely sufferable present. This is what I heard anyway. He develops this meditation in three movements.

The first movement is a landscape of a long, full life, from a childhood filled with happy memories to a colorful triumphant youth. It speaks of love and friendship, loss and recovery, family and independence, and, most of all, the joy of finding always newness beneath what came before. Musically, it is very simple, yet has an epic quality.

The second movement of the Enescu introduces the experiences of the present day to contrast with the theme of pleasant memories from the past. Now the color is gone. The excitement is gone. There is confusion. I thought of Kafka actually. It made me think of walking down a never-ending hallway with frighteningly large and looming bells ringing dissonantly overhead. Never knowing when the bell will sound, never knowing what stomach-sinking tone it will emit, one just continues down the hallway in hope of soon finding a way out, without having to look too hard, since looking is painful. Soon, one is running, etc. Plainly, the whole movement stands in stark contrast to the first.

The third movement is then where the piece becomes interesting, as the music takes steps to make some sense of this blaring contrast before us. It begins with images of attempting to escape from a concentration camp while being attacked by a flock of crows. Not pretty. Then it slips pleasantly into the happy memories of the first movement, a nice escape, then back to the dark race of the present. Soon it becomes clear that the bitter truth of present experience is working hard at vying for space with the less true, though far more pleasant, memories of the past. How to reconcile painful truths with pleasant false realities. This becomes the final topic of the piece, as these themes of memory, high, light, and consonant, and reality, low, heavy, and dissonant, begin to intermingle with one another. Ultimately, there emerges a sense that the author of these thoughts realizes the polarity within him, realizes that he must allow some give in his frame of mind in order to save himself from insanity. This realization is the final musical resolution, and so the piece ends with a feeling that it must continue past the last note. It pushes the listener to extend the music in his own head. I myself could not stop the music from continuing to play.

Radu Lupu is playing again on February 21, 22, and 23 at Symphony Center. You will enjoy it.