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Lupu and his music beguile

Times Staff Writer

RADU LUPU has smoothed a few rough edges. When he walked onstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday night, the incomparably lyrical Romanian pianist was not unkempt or angry-looking. He no longer had the appearance of someone Homeland Security might detain. His collarless suit coat was, if not the latest fashion, stylish for a concert artist. His moderately long hair and Brahmsian beard were somewhat trimmed.

He didn’t scowl at the audience, not even at loud coughers or when a cellphone began to play Bach between movements of his Schumann. He didn’t go so far as to actually smile during the curtain calls, but he looked almost content.

Luckily, nothing else has changed. Lupu still plays like a god.

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His repertory remains limited mostly to Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Only on the rarest occasions has he slipped into the early 20th century. He decided to stop recording a dozen years ago, and his frustrated old label, Decca, keeps having to find new ways to repackage its limited discography of treasures.

Lupu continues to favor an orchestra chair rather than a piano bench. He sits. He plays. He doesn’t show emotion in his gestures. He doesn’t look his audience in the eye. At Disney he directed his gaze but one way -- into the inner selves of Schubert and Schumann. It’s him and the music. At times, I thought him less a pianist and more a magician pulling pianistic essence out of a hat.

The Schumann, in the first half, was offbeat (or least as offbeat as Lupu is willing to get in his choice of repertory). The pianist began with “Waldszenen.” These “forest scenes” were written just as madness was overtaking the composer and are often written off as slightly mad music. But Lupu revealed Schumann’s forest as a place of wondrous, mystical weirdness. He turned the jaunty “entry” music into a careful hushed opening of doors into an unreal landscape. Schumann often suspends harmonies, with one bleeding into the next, and Lupu has the ability to make those overlaps hang in the air for an impossibly long time.

“Humoresque,” which followed, is earlier, more troubled Schumann, and it too is not much played these days. Each short movement expresses a different side of a composer of multiple personalities, but more clumsily than in Schumann’s more famous piano cycles. Lupu, however, resolved the composer’s inner conflicts through tones so liquid and satisfying as to make Schumann whole again.

In Schubert’s Sonata in G, D. 894, after intermission, Lupu’s lyricism rose to the truly transcendent. He made this big sonata, one of Schubert’s late glories, sound as though it were a postmodern experiment in resonance.

Taking advantage of Disney’s acoustics, Lupu created at the opening a G-major halo of the lushest, most reverberant chords that then seemed to hover in the hall for 45 unearthly minutes. The playing, though, was of the earth and the earth’s atmosphere. The big climaxes of the second movement’s development section were all but rooted in the hall’s earthquake-resistant foundation. This was Schubert not for the ear but for all the body and the soul.

The encore was “Warum?” from Schumann’s “Fantasiestucke.” It translates as “Why?” It was beautiful. But the question I was asked more than once leaving the hall was “Who?” Who is Lupu? What is he really like? What does it all mean?

I don’t know. I can’t explain him. I don’t know anyone who can. Or who really wants to.


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