Radu Lupu - Complete Decca Solo Recordings
CDs 1, 2 Ludwig van Beethoven
CDs 3, 4 Johannes Brahms
CDs 5-9 Franz Schubert
CD 10 Robert Schumann
Full list of contents at end of review
Radu Lupu (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Lawrence Foster (Beethoven Concerto no 3)
DECCA 478 2340 [10 CDs: 78:23+ 65:49 + 52:20 + 70:19 + 74:03 + 80:38 + 72:12 + 58:57 + 66:06 + 74:36]
Years ago when I was still in further education, I remember discussion arising in one of the music classes as the result of a TV documentary on Radu Lupu. I was captivated by this unique pianist, who seemed to be one of those rare figures whose remarkable single purpose on this earth is to be a vessel for sublime music-making. The ladies in the class had been somewhat put off by his dark European looks and unconventional playing position, misinterpreting his other-worldly personality as a form of arrogance – or at the very least seeing him as not the kind of person they would want hanging around their house in a dressing gown for any length of time.
25 years later our time has come, and we can have Radu Lupu contained in a single handy package. Lazy or poverty-stricken collectors like me are seeing reissue box sets like this one grow like mushrooms on our specialist CD shop shelves: compact sets full of precious musical jewels, saving the trouble and trauma of trying to remember which volumes of what one already has, and bringing entire portable musical worlds within handy reach.
So, why buy this set? Indeed, I hear there was a ‘Radu Lupu Edition’ released in 2005, but this only partially overlaps with this newer set. For a start, the complete Beethoven concerto recordings with Zubin Mehta was a central element of the earlier releases, plus some other chamber music. Those who already have the earlier Schubert and Brahms sets may think twice about buying this new one, though they will be missing out on the 1993 Schumann recordings and the Beethoven Op.49 Sonatas in this new one, though MP3 download is always a solution for this kind of shortcoming these days. As the title would suggest, this new box concentrates very much on the solo recordings, with Lupu’s debut Beethoven Piano Concerto No.3 thrown in as something of a bonus. The label on the box claims this as the first international CD release for this 1969 concerto recording. Both the Variations WoO 80 and Piano Concerto No.3 from this debut record have also appeared on the Decca Eloquence label (see review).
Starting with the Beethoven 32 Variations one is struck by the immediacy of the sound, rich and sonorous, and with superb dynamic range. I’d bet if you were to put this on in a blind test there are few who would put its vintage at 1970. The same goes for the concerto recording, which is well worth having in its own right, despite being something of an anomaly in this collection. Wobbly flute vibrato in the Largo aside, there is plenty of impressive and lovely playing here, and these relatively early performances show the qualities which brought listeners back to Lupu every time – that sense of depth and subtle power, a kind of magician’s touch, elusive and possibly even dangerous, but always filled with colour and fascination. CD 1 ends with those two Beethoven Op.49 sonatas, the deceptive simplicity in parts of which making one wonder why Radu Lupu wasn’t more interested in Haydn. Intensity and depth are qualities one would not so readily associate with these pieces, and indeed, there is a wit and lightness in Lupu’s playing here which defies gravity. Just listen to the weighing of each phrase, the dynamic shading of each line and passage – I’ve made the allusion before I suspect, but for me the fascination with this kind of music-making is like the swirling colours in a well-blown soap-bubble: fragile and fleeting, but each with its own unique perfection.
CD 2 is another all-Beethoven disc, but presents an altogether more serious trilogy of sonatas. Starting with the famous ‘Moonlight’ Sonata No.14 in C sharp minor, Lupu has more sense than to leave the sustain pedal down permanently in that opening Adagio Sostenuto, defying Beethoven’s instructions while making more sense of the music on the big butch modern instrument at his disposal. This is real ‘soul’ music. If you love this piece but have yet to find the version which makes your world stand still, then this may very well be what you have been looking for. When the more lively music kicks in later on you realise that the studio acoustic is fairly dry, but this is of little matter. The final Presto agitato is a real white knuckle ride, symphonic in its impact, and as emotionally potent as a Schubert lied. The opening of the ‘Pathétique’ Sonata No.8 in C minor is an even deeper frown from that bust of Beethoven. Lupu holds back the accents in the Grave opening section, suspending time, but in a different way to the ‘Moonlight’: here we are held over a precipice, waiting to fall into that maelstrom of an Allegro which follows. The central Adagio cantabile is a gift from heaven. It’s sometimes hard to put one’s finger on what makes Radu Lupu’s sense of drama or intimate communication different to, say, someone like Alfred Brendel, who is also so sensitive to those qualities of ‘innigkeit’ in Schubert and Beethoven. All I can say is, where some other players can communicate this very effectively in their playing, Lupu seems able to conjure it from the core of his very being. Disc 2 ends at last in a major key sonata, the ‘Waldstein’ Op. 53. Lupu responds once more to the change in atmosphere in this piece, lightness and sunny moods are expressed with a sense of almost unexpected fun. Beethoven’s gruff temper is never very far away, but you sense him revelling in his own creative powers as much as expressing cares both worldly and spiritual – even the extended Adagio molto introduction to the final movement, standing in as a slow movement, is more a late-night exploration of the overtone sonorities of the piano than a search for the meaning of life. … or is it? The beauty of Lupu’s playing is as much in the questions left unanswered, an atmosphere of ambiguity brought forth into the mysterious wash of sustain pedal with which the final Rondo opens. The answer might be in a peasant dance, but here the dance takes place among the clouds, and thus remains elusive and intangible. Even after encountering András Schiff’s forward-looking Beethoven sonata recordings on the ECM, label Radu Lupu still makes Beethoven sound as modern and revolutionary as one can imagine, somehow doing so – as Schiff also does in his own way – without seeming to impose himself between us and the music, between us and Beethoven.
CD 3 and we move on to Brahms. Just within the opening seconds of the great Piano Sonata No.3 we get to hear what all that fuss is about – majestically orchestral contrasts between the explosive opening, and warm limpid pools of gentle undulation in those deep troughs. The opening Allegro maestoso is breathtaking on every level, technically, but more importantly in terms of that musical journey on which we demand to be taken. This one goes very far indeed – out to a sort of Dante-esque hell from which the journey back seems almost impossible. We do return however … and how! It may not be the journey you always want to take with this piece, but if you want to go the furthest, this is the place to come. Radu Lupu sails close to turning the music into a caricature of Brahms at places, but in doing so shows, as few others do, how far Brahms was pushing the idiom of his time. That waltz of the Scherzo and the death march of the Intermezzo almost reflect madness; full of grotesque gestures which go far beyond dance, and which with Lupu go beyond the music into realms of a kind of Symphonie Fantastique narrative. The Theme and Variations in D minor derive from ‘that movement’ in Brahms’ String Sextet Op.18, and receives a powerful performance from Lupu in this recording, strong and imposing, but also suffused with poetry and lyricism.
CD 4 brings us to the later Brahms works which have been another of Radu Lupu’s specialities. These are remarkable pieces which hide behind innocent looking titles such as Rhapsodies, Intermezzi, and Klavierstücke. As with the Sonata No.3 Lupu seeks extremes, digs deep and extracts every ounce of import from every note. The sheer drama of the Rhapsodies sets the scene with gusto, but those Intermezzi Op.117 are meltingly beautiful and linger longer in the memory. In his booklet notes, Jeremy Hayes tells us that Radu Lupu “does not enjoy the experience [of recording, and] is very rarely happy with the results.” None of this comes through in these performances and those of the Klavierstücke, which are expansive and generous. There comes a time when you can leave behind superlatives and comparisons and yes, I still enjoy pianists such as Julius Katchen and Emanuel Ax in this repertoire, but Lupu’s touch is just that kind of thing you want to take away to your desert island – a set of works of art which you know will never pall no matter how often you listen.
CD 5 and we’ve arrived at Schubert. This has been one of my lifetime searches, finding a kind of ‘ideal’ recording of these and other sonatas. I have had a few sets pass through my speakers, such as Michael Endres, who I haven’t played a great deal, and Alfred Brendel who I have. Mitsuko Uchida I still quite like, but find I am returning to less and less these days. These are all very personal and subjective evaluations, but with Radu Lupu I find I’ve grown into his playing of these works over the years. It used to be I wasn’t so keen on his almost bestial fortissimo peaks and, for want of a better word, ‘symphonic’ kaleidoscope of effects. There is still no one player who does it all for me, and returning to Radu Lupu reminds me of the reasons I had my doubts, at the same time instructing me in how my own analytical senses and attitudes have changed. The sheer majesty of the Sonata D845 is something to behold in this recording, with Lupu finding shades and gradations in all of those repeated notes and wide swings of dramatic mood which instantly makes you realise why he is a ‘pianist’s pianist’. In this way he is comparable with Sviatoslav Richter, with an equal power of forceful communication and conviction, but with a less wilful attitude to the notes on the score. The passages of pellucid playing such as the running figures in the Rondo final movement of this sonata as much of a ‘wow’ as the tougher statements, but it is their juxtaposition; the clash of worlds, which makes the whole thing such an imposing musical monument. The Sonata D894 is a real favourite, starting full of delicious darkness which Lupu seems able to make grow from below the keys, and moving towards sunshine leaping on water over the course of the entire piece. Light and shade, intimate tenderness and an organic fusing of structural elements without making that structure the focus of attention are all parts which make this recording into the kind of musical narrative you can put in your pocket and take anywhere like a good book – as much a place to inhabit than a mere consumable product.
On to CD 6, and the Sonata D557 is played with charm and light grace, another real treat. Comparing this with the stormier late sonatas makes you realise how sensitive Lupu is to the sense of dynamic proportion between works, his peaks rarely going over a moderate forte in this sonata. The change in piano tuning between this and the Scherzos D593 is rather disconcerting, and the dip between the two can make the latter seem out of tune for quite a while. The Scherzos are played with elegant refinement, but the Moments musicaux D780 are in a different league creatively. Lupu’s exploration of subtle mood in these six pieces is hard to equal. The likes of that A flat major Andantino have timeless qualities you will always want to have around, and the same goes for the lighter pieces, which have an irrepressible inner life and forward-looking and uplifting sense of atmosphere. This CD concludes with the stunning Sonata D958 which Lupu delivers with all of those qualities one would expect and hope for. The depth of expression he can achieve with so few notes in the Andantino is another world-stopping musical experience.
The acoustic picture for Disc 7 and the Sonata D959 is a little duller and more bass heavy than some of the other recordings, but detracts little from another fine performance. This is another sonata which has a strong narrative feel to my mind, and the sense of arrival with that final Rondo is very strong and satisfying with Lupu. Tape hiss rears a little more with the Sonata D784 and there is some distortion at peaks, but again these are minor distractions for another powerful performance. Lupu combines the funereal mood of the music with a Beethovenian sense of defiance, and he doesn’t linger over the central Andante as do some pianists, preferring instead to allow the music to breathe at a more human scale, rather than approaching celestial vistas. The sound quality picks up again for the Sonata D157, Lupu revelling in Schubert’s quietly virtuosic compositional language, teasing with just the right amount of pulling and tweaking of moments where the harmonies trip our expectations.
Disc 8 brings us into firmly into the digital recording era in the Schubert series, and another of those discs I had for a long time, but somehow failed to appreciate. Not wanting to gloss over the Sonata D664 and its beautifully prayer-like Andante and light-footed Allegro, but the clear star of this show is or should be the amazing final Sonata D960. I’m a bit precious about this piece, and I suspect my initial reaction will initially have been coloured by the rather distorted view given by the oft-spun live recording done by Valery Afanassiev on the ECM label. Lupu is almost operatically swift by comparison, and I still have my doubts as to whether this is the kind of Molto moderato Schubert had in mind. In this movement he is closer to Brendel, who also refuses to linger with over-developed sentiment in this first movement. The drama here is clear and present, rather than drifting off to more ethereal realms. I feel both views can have their place and don’t see either as ‘wrong’, but I suppose I do hanker after just a bit more spaciousness here after all. Lupu almost seems impatient with the music at times, and I feel it deserves just a fraction more elbow room. This is all the more apparent when put against the Andante sostenuto second movement, which is like a stethoscope placed against the slow heartbeat of the entire planet. The final Allegro ma non troppo is truly magnificent and life-affirming, though is more Allegro than non troppo. In all this is a marvellous performance and I’m glad to make its re-acquaintance, but it still doesn’t quite achieve desert island status in my view, and the quest for the ‘perfect’ recording continues.
For those of us searching for a ‘perfect’ set of Schubert’s Impromptus then the acclaimed recording which we find on CD 9 has to be a front runner. Murray Perahia is a tough competitor in these pieces in my book, but Lupu has an intensity which lingers on in the memory long after hearing these pieces. The pleasure in these performances is so well balanced between lyrical melody and deliciously expressive accompaniment or countermelody/figuration that it is sometimes hard for the ear to decide which part it wants to follow the most. This is certainly true of the Impromptus D899, and with the darker moods of the first Allegro moderato in D935 these dual entities weave and converse like duelling lovers. The other exquisite song-like pieces are eternally gorgeous, and the final Allegro scherzando sums up a bursting box of extremes, from the frills of a reluctant ballroom to angst-ridden expressions of near-madness.
Which brings us neatly to Schumann. In his booklet notes, Jeremy Hayes tells us that Radu Lupu has refused to make any recordings since winning a Grammy and Edison award for his last Schubert recording and this Schumann disc respectively, so we have to make the best of it, even though we are also told that Lupu “feels the presence of microphones freezes him up and makes him insecure as a player.” This may be true, but he also manages to express Schumann’s wildness and extremes of mood. The Humoreske Op.20 is an incredible cycle, and another of those piece which hides remarkable musical power behind an innocent sounding title. Lupu shows the Harlequin mask slipping, and has a way of emphasising grotesque elements in the music. Where there is lyricism this sings, but Schumann never really allows it to flow in any predictable direction and Lupu responds to every unconventional aberration with glee. The Kinderszenen are somewhat safer musical ground, and Lupu’s sensitivity to Schumann’s idiom means just enough but not too much teasing and stretching of the ends of phrases. Each of the little sketches and character moods are given enough value and weight, with the poise of the central Dreaming very much an eye at the centre of the rest of the pieces, all of which whirl and orbit with their own sense of vibrant life. Kreisleriana has aspects of the ultimate virtuoso showpiece, and Radu Lupu skates through its difficulties with effortless ease and a sense of nobility which reaches to the heart of the music. Other pianists such as Argerich and Pollini are equally capable in this repertoire and comparably powerful, but the core of what makes Lupu’s recordings special is summed up in what makes this Schumann stand out from the crowd, that one elusive word which in its own right is eternally in search of a meaning: ‘soul’.
These ten discs work out at just over three UK pounds per disc or a bit more, depending on where you find this box. Even bearing in mind the vintage of some of these recordings, the quality is consistently high, and only shows one or two points of mild and understandable weakness in the more elderly Schubert tapes. The value in this box is only partly in the actual repertoire. What you will be purchasing is an exceptional glimpse into what real communication is from the keyboard. You can hear fiery and spectacular pianism, technical brilliance and excellent musicianship all over the place, but pianists are rare who have that gift of showing us more than we expected from the music, and who bring us closer to the gift bestowed by the composer in ways that only technical prowess and effective musicianship cannot. If I have any criticism, then it is the lack of any real commentary on the music in the booklet. We have a useful enough potted essay on Radu Lupu’s career and relationship to the composers represented in this complete collection of his solo recordings made for Decca, but that’s as far as it goes. Never mind, for piano collectors and fans of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and Schumann, this box is a must, and I envy those who have the opportunity to discover these recordings for the first time.
CD 1 [78:23]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Rondo in C major, Op. 51 no 1 (1797) [5:38]
Rondo in G major, Op. 51 no 2 (1798) [9:23]
32 Variations in C minor on an Original Theme, WoO 80 (1806) [11:13]
Concerto no 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1800) [35:57]*
Sonata no 19 in G minor, Op. 49 no 1 (1797) [7:45]
Sonata no 20 in G major, Op. 49 no 2 (1796) [8:36]
CD 2 [65:49]
Sonata no 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 no 2 "Moonlight" (1801) [17:17]
Sonata no 8 in C minor, Op. 13 "Pathétique" (1797-1798) [22:16]
Sonata no 21 in C major, Op. 53 "Waldstein" (1803-1804) [26:15]
CD 3 [52:20]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata no 3 in F minor, Op. 5 (1853) [41:21]
Theme and Variations in D minor (1860) [11:00]
CD 4 [70:19]
2 Rhapsodies, Op. 79 (1879) [16:38]
3 Intermezzi, Op. 117 (1892) [16:47]
6 Klavierstücke, Op. 118 (1892) [21:45]
4 Klavierstücke, Op. 119 (1892) [15:09]
CD 5 [74:03]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata in A minor, D 845/Op. 42 (1825) [36:41]
Sonata in G major, D 894/Op. 78 (1826) [37:22]
CD 6 [80:38]
Sonata in A flat major, D 557 "Sonatine" (1817) [10:47]
2 Scherzos, D 593 (1817) [9:49]
6 Moments musicaux, D 780/Op. 94 (1823-1828) [29:00]
Sonata in C minor, D 958 (1828) [30:59]
CD 7 [72:12]
Sonata in A major, D 959 (1828) [37:04]
Sonata in A minor, D 784/Op. 143 (1823) [18:38]
Sonata for Piano in E major, D 157 (1815) [16:26]
CD 8 [58:57]
Sonata in A major, D 664/Op. 120 (1819/1825) [19:31]
Sonata in B flat major, D 960 (1828) [39:21]
CD 9 [66:06]
4 Impromptus, D 899/Op. 90 (1827) [30:19]
4 Impromptus, D 935/Op. 142 (1827) [36:21]
CD 10 [74:36]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Humoreske in B flat major, Op. 20 (1838) [26:08]
Kinderszenen, Op. 15 (1838) [16:35]
Kreisleriana, Op. 16 (1838) [32:12]
Radu Lupu (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Lawrence Foster*
rec. St. John’s, Smith Square, March-April 1970 (Brahms Op.79/117, Schubert D784),
Kingsway Hall, London, November 1970 (Beethoven Variations, Op.37), April 1974 (Schubert D894, D593, D780), July 1975 (D557, D959), July 1976 (Brahms Op.117, Op.118, Op.119), December 1977 (Beethoven Op.49), January 1979 (Schubert D157), July 1981 (Brahms Theme and Variations),
Decca Studio No.3, West Hampstead, London, June 1972 (CD 2),
Henry Wood Hall, London, August 1979 (Beethoven Op.51),
Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg, June 1972 (Brahms Op.5), July 1981 (Schubert D780), June 1982 (CD 9),
Salle de Châtonneyre, Corseaux, Switzerland, December 1991 (CD 8), January 1993 (CD 10).
DECCA 478 2340 [10 CDs: 78:23+ 65:49 + 52:20 + 70:19 + 74:03 + 80:38 + 72:12 + 58:57 + 66:06 + 74:36]
Must have, must have… see Full Review