Lupu’s detached style shorts Schubert’s drama in mixed program

Mon Feb 01, 2010 at 12:52 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson


There are few more unblinking gazes into the abyss than Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat.  The epic work (D.960) sounds startlingly modern even today with its epic canvas, psychic dislocation and predominant darkness, a bleak landscape that the optimistic final movement never quite dispels.

Schubert’s sonata was the main work on Radu Lupu’s recital Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

Even in his prime, the celebrated Romanian was more the thinking man’s pianist than a fire-breathing virtuoso, though he always possessed ample technique to handle the complexities of the selected Austro-German keyboard works he has chosen to specialize in.

At 64, the Romanian pianist is hardly in his dotage, but the march of time does seem to be taking some toll on Lupu’s playing, even in his core repertoire of Schubert and Beethoven.

While his performance of the epic Schubert B-flat sonata was polished and magisterial, it emerged rather lightweight and Olympian for such intense, roiling music. The long opening movement, in particular, felt oddly under-characterized, detached in the first movement to the point of seeming almost offhand. Lupu’s playing was refined and alert, but Sunday those malign bass tremolos that continually interrupt the main theme’s progress were more like minor passing disturbances than repeated stabs to the soul.

The rest of the work fared better. Lupu was more in synch with the Andante sostenuto’s ruminative melancholy and the energetic scherzo provided the ray of brightly contrasted sunlight. The pianist brought some belated intensity to the returning shadows in the finale, but, considering Lupu’s reputation in this repertory, this was a disappointing performance.

The first half of the program set the scene for Schubert’s tragic sonata, and provided more consistent rewards.  Lupu conveyed the elegant disquiet of Janacek’s In the Mists with searching introspection, bringing the right inward expression to these fragmented reflections.

His Beethoven was more controversial. This was an Appassionata distinctly short on blazing power, notably so in the opening movement’s crashing chords and Lupu’s rather cautious approach to the manic final bars. Yet while not the most dramatic account, Lupu made up the balance somewhat with his sensitive tone and phrasing, the Andante stoic and unsentimental, rendered with great delicacy.

Radu Lupu will be back in a few weeks for more Beethoven, performing the Concerto No. 3 with the CSO Feb 25-March 2. www.cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances


One Response to “Lupu’s detached style shorts Schubert’s drama in mixed program”

  1. Posted Feb 02, 2010 at 1:23 am by Dave Belden

    Frankly, you’re too kind. Lupu was so completely relaxed that he might as well have been reading the paper. I kept waiting for something (anything) to happen. There was so little contrast in dynamics, tempi, or style, that the entire concert became a blurry wash.