An Individual and Deeply Rewarding Recital from Radu Lupu

GermanyGermany Schumann and Schubert :Radu Lupu (piano). Semperoper, Dresden, 16.4.2014 (MB)

SchumannKinderszenen, op.15
Bunte Blätter, op.99: selection
Schubert – Sonata in A major, D 959


I expect limited sympathy from readers elsewhere, but a sadness of London musical life is that Radu Lupu hardly ever seems to visit. Prior to this concert in Dresden, I had heard him once only, and that as a concerto soloist. Suffice it to say, the long wait to hear Lupu in recital, whilst regrettable, was worth it.

The first half was given over to Schumann, first the Kinderszenen. ‘Von fremden Ländern und Menschen’ made for an opening of disarming simplicity: inflected, certainly, but with the impression of ‘natural’ inevitability sustained, however problematical those terms might be in the abstract. It was as if, to borrow from the final piece of the collection, the poet spoke: or, perhaps better, the poets, both Schumann and Lupu, spoke. Sprung rhythms, allied to the deepest understanding of Schumann’s harmonies, characterised the following ‘Curiose Geschichte’. ‘Bittendes Kind’ was lovely indeed, music seemingly melting in the air, Lupu’s exquisite touch and rubato seamlessly blended into one voice of musical expression. The voice-leading of ‘Glückes genug’ similarly beguiled. ‘Träumerei’ emerged as the heart in more than one sense of the cycle; the way Lupu’s playing drew one in – even from the Third Circle, though the Semperoper’s excellent acoustic here also played a role – simply had to be heard to be believed. This was playing that compelled one to listen, not merely to hear, but also seduced one into doing so. The pointing of rhythms in ‘Am Camin’ pointed the way nicely to a miniature Faschingsschwank aus Wien in ‘Ritter von Steckenpferd’. Brahmsian half-lights haunted ‘Fürchtenmachen’, yet without the ‘lateness’ of the later master; this was Schumann through and through. And yes, for ‘Der Dichter spricht’, the poet(s) spoke still more movingly, with a directness so touching that it hurt.

Twelve of the Bünte Blätter followed, nos 12 and 13 omitted. I hardly ever noticed the undeniably four-square nature of Schumann’s writing, and it certainly did not matter. Mendelssohn sprang to mind in the lyricism of the first of the ‘Drei Stücklein’, but extended in a way that was utterly personal, haunted by shadows of German Romanticism. The second was vehement yet variegated, whilst Schubert seemed to be recalled in the horn-calls of the third. The first of the ‘Albumblätter’ was intimate yet radiant, followed by Brahmsian involvement in the second, which yet managed to be very much of the moment. If the fourth was as sad as it was slow, perhaps still more so, the fifth offered consolation of a sort in its poetic eloquence. The final four pieces (nos. 9, 10, 11, and 14) all benefited from the most beautifully-judged rubato. Sometimes Chopin came to mind, for instance in the left hand of the Novelette, but again, it was Schumann’s voice that spoke, despite some irksome electronic interference (a hearing aid?)

The performance of Schubert’s late A major sonata was perhaps more individual still. I can imagine some finding it wilful, but only if they heard rather than truly listened; for, however unconventional some of the increasingly intimate communion with the score, a convincing line could always be traced, and more to the point experienced. The quasi-orchestral opening to the first movement, its chords surprisingly Beethovenian, soon mellowed in a way that could only be Schubert’s. Likewise the expressive experience – as opposed to mere outlining – of the movement’s form, just as mysterious as late Beethoven, yet very different. Much here and later seemed intriguingly to strain towards the fragmentary, suggestive – consciously or otherwise – of Schubert’s legacy to the Second Viennese School. To describe that process as centrifugal would be to simplify unduly, but the twin tendencies of disintegration and integration were equally apparent – again, so long as one listened. And what a touch: such as words fail, or at least fail me. Cross rhythms were imbued with dark meaning; above all, the music was made strange, none more so than the closing bars, which peered forward to Liszt. That rendering of strangeness also informed the slow movement’s ghostly tread: somehow almost depersonalised, as if the piano were playing itself, and yet at the same time utterly subjective. That subject, moreover, still had strength, however difficult it found its self-willing into existence. There was bitterness, yes, resignation, yes, fury, yes, but also at times something close to the beatific. Lupu’s performance was rhetorical, yet not at the expense of highly tortured form.

The delicacy of the scherzo’s high-lying would-be high spirits seemed to defy gravity. Unity was mysteriously achieved through contrasts of (almost but not quite) Beethovenian magnitude. The opening theme of the finale sounded both as a long-lost friend and as a new character in the unfolding drama. Its elaboration offered ineffable inevitability whilst maintaining the ability to surprise: modulations could – and did – still take one’s breath away. Was it too late, then, for reconciliation? Certainly in any Mozartian sense. Yet as one stared – or rather listened – into Schubert’s abyss, form and expression offered their own variety of experiential unity.

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment