Lupu the Magician in Concert


Radu Lupu, the Romanian pianist, has always enjoyed playing against type. He purposefully storms on stage, anarchist-gruff, hair and beard a mess. He sits at the cheap straight-backed office chair he prefers to an expensive padded piano bench. He glares at the audience to shut it up. He never, never smiles. And then, when he is really on, he launches into lyrical playing so utterly transporting, so little of this planet, that it seems to know no laws of gravity.

Lupu’s extraordinary recital in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday night was slightly different. This time he didn’t bother with the glare. Representatives of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which sponsored the concert, said that Lupu was suffering from a flu so severe that he wasn’t sure until the very last minute that he would be able to play.

But play he did, and with no adjustments to the program, and no announcements asking the audience for indulgence. Just one fewer head turn and glare.


In fact, Lupu sounded at first as if he did, indeed, need a bit of tolerance. Schumann’s “Faschingsschwank aus Wien” translates as “Carnival Pranks From Vienna” and is meant on the surface to be wry satire. But Schumann, like Lupu, usually had an agenda. This is music of a provincial caught up in but also a bit overwhelmed by the swirl of Viennese life. It is music of a composer not fitting in and, most important for the overheated romantic Schumann was, music of inconsolable loneliness for an absent love.

Lupu’s playing of it was brittle, the piano tone hard and clattery, the emotional tone stormy and stony. It was also the exception.

The rule was the kind of performance that followed of Janacek’s “Sonata I.X.1905.” Subtitled “From the Street,” the short, angry and anguished sonata was a response to the killing of a political demonstrator on Oct. 1, 1905, during an uprising against the ruling Germans in the Czech composer’s hometown of Brno.

The two movements, which Janacek titled “The Presentiment” and “The Death,” are meant to convey the tumult and sadness of the incident. And Lupu took this to the extremes of first an astonishing unstoppable torrent of notes and then a kind of inconsolable lyricism in which notes seemed to float as symbols of the soul leaving the body.

But more. The torrent was so thick and intense, so rich in sound, that it too seemed otherworldly, while the lyrical complement was also so intense that single notes seemed to contain as much potential energy as the deluge had dynamic energy. Both complements shared the same sense of overwhelming inevitability.

Bartok’s “Out of Doors,” a suite of five character pieces, is also music of the street but lighter of spirit and more colorful. Here, Lupu’s deadpan was downright Buster Keatonish. Always serious, even glum, he whacked left-hand clusters as imitation drums and skidded across the keyboard in acrobatic fashion, again and again finding deeper and deeper levels of expression in even the slightest of gestures. The Barcarole movement came as close to the representation of fluidity as one is likely to ever encounter from a mechanical keyboard.


The great Schubert sonatas have long been Lupu’s specialty, there being no better home for his poetic lyricism than in these works in which melodies are exquisitely spun on and on and on. However, the C Minor Sonata, D. 958, which Lupu chose as the big work after intermission, is usually less transcendental than the others. In his notes to the program, Orrin Howard speaks of “the bleak and/or sinewy kind of terrain” this late, unusually disturbing sonata traverses. So more music of foreboding and anger in a program that already had quite enough, one might imagine.


But once again, Lupu took the sonata whole, and both storm and rainbow came to seem manifestations of the same natural phenomena. The four movements of this sonata are not connected musically, and often Schubert can ramble within movements as well, with an almost improvisatory air. Schubert’s talent was that of magician, pulling the surprise out of the hat, showing the unbelievable side of nature.

Lupu is master of this magic, but he also is the poet who can put it in context of something larger. He plays Schubert the way we live in the world, aware that every moment seems to make sense, and doesn’t, at the same time.