Fabulous Evening with Radu Lupu, Paavo Järvi and the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Rachmaninov: Radu Lupu (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Paavo Järvi (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 3.2.2019. (CC)

Radu Lupu

Beethoven – Overture, Coriolan, Op.62; Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58

Rachmaninov – Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27

Visits to London by the great Romanian pianist Radu Lupu are rarer than hens’ teeth, so the queues for returns hours before the concert began were no surprise. The strength of Lupu’s pull is obviously huge; an appreciative (if sometimes bronchial) audience made its delight felt.

Before the Great Man’s entrance, though, Beethoven’s Overture Coriolan – for Collin’s 1804 play, not the Shakespeare. The performance was not absolutely 100% confident (that first unison with an ever so slightly early entrance from the first violins), winter colds scuppering each and every one of Beethoven’s usually pregnant silences. None of which was the major problem; it was Järvi letting the music sag in the more lyrical moments that took away any properly compelling qualities.

Not that anyone, I imagine, came for Coriolan, apt scene-setter though it can be (also, its strong minor-key stance sits in maximal contrast to the G major of the Fourth Piano Concerto). Lupu’s solo entrance in the concerto was marked by a luminosity rarely encountered from any pianist; Järvi’s gentle orchestral riposte expertly matched Lupu. Suddenly, everything seemed to come together leading to a reading from Lupu characterised by its gentleness. In the louder passages, there seemed to be zero chance of breaking the piano tone, even when the piano is asked to reply to heroic horns. Beethoven’s first movement cadenza (the first cadenza, the one that begins in the mid-range of the keyboard) was simply beautiful, the final trill preternaturally perfect.

The restrained aspect to Lupu’s playing worked perfectly in the solo/orchestra ‘Orpheus taming the beast’ dynamic of the central movement. Here, trills took on a powerful, proto-late period power of their own; the peace of the close could surely never be bettered. The finale contained humour as well as clarity. True, not everything was tidy (Lupu seemed to bat away one incident with the wave of a hand, as if swatting a fly), but the sheer integrity of the performance, the sheer weight of resonance between soloist and composer, was mind-boggling. Järvi was a superb accompanist throughout; in the programme he is quoted as saying ‘I have learned more from Radu than from any other musician’ and the care with which he led the orchestra was testament to that respect.

Brahms was the chosen composer for the encore: an exquisite E flat Intermezzo Op.117/1. Jarvi sat at the back of the orchestra, as enraptured as the rest of us.

There was more space in the hall post-interval; a shame, as Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony received a powerful performance. Järvi understands the ebb and flow of Rachmaninov’s thought processes, pitting the woodwind choir against those lush melodies in the first movement. The allegro had a beautifully flowing tempo with brass on top form (particularly the lower end). The brass made their mark also in the Allegro molto second movement (superb, strong and accurate violas here, too). It was Mark van de Wiel’s clarinet that shone in the famous Adagio, while Tom Blomfield’s keening oboe was also notable. The strings, plush but not over-upholstered, drove the build-up to the movement climax beautifully before the bright finale, rhythms on point, brought the work to a glorious close.

A fabulous evening. Lupu was the star of the show, but those that left prior to the Rachmaninov missed out on a vital part of the experience.

Colin Clarke

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