Pianist Radu Lupu, following a quirky but rewarding path

Musician as mystic: Lupu plumbed the depths of works on his program at Strathmore.
Musician as mystic: Lupu plumbed the depths of works on his program at Strathmore. (John Garfield)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010

Some musicians grasp a score and lead their listeners firmly through it, their playing like a clear light to illuminate its intricacies. Radu Lupu, by contrast, is a mystic. He communes with the score on his own terms, examining the things that seem to him the most important with a kind of Talmudic persistence that teases out arcane details while moving more quickly past things that have already been rehashed. The result is fascinating. On Wednesday night, it yielded one of the most idiosyncratic piano recitals in recent memory.

Lupu, 64, projects a mystical persona in his offstage life, generally avoiding interviews and letting the music speak for him. This air of mystery may have contributed to the illusion, propagated in pre-concert remarks by the president of Washington Performing Arts Society, Neale Perle, that Lupu has not been heard in Washington for many years. In fact, though he hasn't appeared with WPAS since 1994, his last recital in the D.C. area was in 2003 at NIH, just down the road from Strathmore, the site of Wednesday's concert. On that program, too, he played Schubert's D. 959 Sonata in A, a late work that, like much of Schubert, often presents itself as artless, deceptive, naive. In Lupu's hands, it also raged and thundered.

It was a program that followed three individual trains of thought. Two of the works, true, were monuments of Viennese classicism -- Beethoven's "Appassionata" and the Schubert -- but they were prefaced by a piece that signaled the program's quirkiness: Janacek's "In the Mist," a bittersweet sonata in miniature, its four movements crammed with ideas, from wispy chords to a ruddy folk-like song. Rather than making them thorny or bristling, Lupu offered them with a gentle austerity, a restraint that bordered on the placid.

Lupu was, in fact, notably laid-back in his approach. Taking his seat on a plain chair at the piano, then measuring his distance from the instrument by holding out his fingertips to the top of the piano case, he started playing the often-turbulent "Appassionata" as if it were purely meditative, toning down its dark thunder to a cottony softness, emphasizing the inner lines so strongly that it was sometimes hard to follow the piece's familiar contours.

His approach was not self-conscious, simply a little bizarre. He kept focusing on throwaway moments, plucking lucid tones from the keyboard in a descending scale, for instance, and then rushing into passages of more obvious drama, like the recapitulation of the main theme, as if they needed little explication. Sometimes these more dramatic episodes became muddy and unclear as a result, as if heard through a haze of aural incense.

The concert was something of a Rorschach test: The playing was so individual and personal (and sprinkled with not a few dropped notes) that judging it became, even more than usual, a matter of personal taste. I found the Beethoven more compelling than the Schubert, for all the blurred contours of the former and the many moments of electricity that crackled through the latter. The first two movements of the Beethoven, partly by virtue of being so unusual, presented a compelling narrative; I wasn't sure what it was, but I wanted to hear it.

By contrast, I found that Lupu's investigations into the Schubert sometimes moved beside the point, going so far afield -- and into uncharacteristic bouts of tumult -- that the music, already episodic, began to drift apart and lose its continuity. This became a virtue, though, at the rather wonderful close, as the final rondo splintered into jagged shards of melody, separated by extended pauses, each trying to find its way back to some idyllic whole, before being rejoined by the assertive coda.

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