Friday, February 6, 2009

Music review: Lupu haunting in late Schubert

Pianist Radu Lupu.

By Greg Stepanich

PALM BEACH -- It was a Schubert of half-light, of sketched thoughts and mental wanderings, and while completely unconventional, Radu Lupu's performance Wednesday night of the last piano sonata of the doomed Austrian master stays in the memory, even if it haunts instead of sings.

The legendary Romanian pianist came to the Society of the Four Arts with a program of four sonatas: three by Beethoven (Nos. 8 through 10, which includes the Pathetique), and the 21st, and final, sonata of Schubert (in B-flat, D. 960). Famously reticent, Lupu wore black and gray under his white artist's hair and beard, sat in a standard chair to play rather than on a bench, and never cracked a smile, even as the audience shouted its approval at the end of the recital.

Lupu's idiosyncratic approach to the core Germanic repertory in which he specializes is best explained by a rare remark of his that each performance has to sound spontaneous to be worthwhile. It certainly did sound off-the-cuff Wednesday, and he made several prominent mistakes that reinforced that impression, yet overall it was an evening of original music-making, and in the best sense of that word.

The B-flat sonata that Schubert wrote two months before his death at 31 is a long, sprawling work, overfull of ideas, as if the composer was trying to get them all in before the lights went out. But in Lupu's reading, one wasn't conscious of the length of the sonata, only fascinated by the journey and wondering where it was going to lead next.

In the big opening movement Lupu kept much of the dynamic soft, and didn't so much play the chords as lean on them, expressing them in bits and pieces of color rather than broad brushtrokes. Keeping it that way allowed him to outline a landscape of murmurings blasted by sudden shocks and odd accents, such as in the jumpy little motif in the first ending of the main theme, which Lupu played almost as a minor-second chord, not individual notes; this was music that groaned instead of simmered with subterranean energy.

The spooky interpretation Lupu gave the first movement was leavened by his beautiful tone production, which could be heard in little golden moments throughout such as the first wistful G-flat major variant of the opening theme, and the gorgeous little D minor tune that precedes the recapitulation.

And while the overall dynamic in the movement was very soft, the second movement was even softer. Everything was a whisper, especially the accompaniment figure, which even though barely audible had rhythmic snap and kept the mournful, nearly static chord progression moving. But it was the perfect setup for the middle section, in which Lupu made the melody sing beautifully while leaving the accompaniment wearing shrouds.

In the third movement, Lupu offered the kind of technical clarity familiar from his pellucid recordings of Mozart, and a full indulgence in the playful offbeat accents of the scherzo and its trio. In the finale, Lupu used the initial unison chord most effectively, seemingly coming in with the main theme at random times, and in different ways, after each of its appearances throughout the movement.

All told, this was remarkable Schubert, even though some of the playing was less than pristine. What Lupu conveyed was the sense of abundant ideas, most of them heartbreakingly beautiful, presented in a dramatic structure in which risk and surprise were the guiding deities. If that makes for a sonata that doesn't cohere, it nevertheless is the most accurate way of giving us an urgent letter from the mind of a supreme talent grasping at a life that is only weeks from slipping away.

That's the kind of thing you think about with playing like this, and while the first half, devoted to the three Beethoven sonatas, was not as momentous, it was nevertheless innovatory and compelling.

With the two sonatas of Op. 14 (No. 9 in E and No. 10 in G), Beethoven is back in the world of Haydn, more or less. The music has its Beethovenian qualities of melody and drama, but the framework comes from an earlier generation. Lupu played both pieces with a fidelity to older performance practice, including a minimum of pedal, which resulted in a dryness and detachment that was nevertheless attractive.

The focus in both these sonatas was on contrast, clarity and wit. Lupu punched out the accompaniment in the opening movement of the E major sonata with a tight-wristed brittleness, emphasized dynamic differences in the second, and in the finale stressed its comedy, particularly the funny little chromatic wisps in the closing bars.

In the G major, the story was much the same, with even more attention to the jokes in the finale, which has a form of one of Beethoven's favorite jests: the rising scale that ends up returning to the wrong key. It was engaging playing, though there could have been more precision; the last three notes of the work wink better when the notes are antiseptic, not muddy.

Lupu spent very little time pausing between movements of each sonata, starting the next section almost immediately after the first. A little more time would have been welcome, and in the final Beethoven sonata on the program, the Pathetique (No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13), it would have been better to hear the piece played less sloppily.

Idiosyncracy is one thing, but here in this most familiar of sonatas, Lupu hit too many wrong notes at exposed times in the first movement, especially in the two slow French-overture sections. The second theme of the first movement was far too messy, both times it appeared, to make its intended effect. The slow movement, on the other hand, was quietly poetic, with the secondary theme played softer than I have ever heard it.

The Rondo finale had a kind of inner-directed feel to it that was interesting but not particularly persuasive. This movement needs to have a headlong kind of thrust and an attendant joyous athleticism, but this account was by comparison rather colorless, rounding off what overall was a disappointing rendition of the sonata.

Lupu closed the evening with more Schubert, the Third Impromptu (in G-flat, D. 899, No. 3) of the first of his two four-part sets. This serene and heartfelt song was well-suited to Lupu's strengths: Lovely tone, impressive control, and an ability to create a musical atmosphere of expectant calm.

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