Bordeaux falls in love with Lupu

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 27.05.2015

When an aging Radu Lupu sauntered onstage in Bordeaux Tuesday evening (27 May) a hush fell over the packed Auditorium. This pianist is generally recognized as one of the world’s most accomplished keyboard artists, and the full house of 2,200 attendees knew it.

Diminutive in physical stature, the Romania native wears a neat white beard and the standard tux for his rare public performances. Now 70 years old and based in Lausanne, he is making his first and perhaps last appearance in Bordeaux.  As he reaches the piano, he manages a shallow nod to the audience. He is known for not being that interested in the public, or the media, or personal panache. With Lupu, it’s all about the music. 

His choice for this part of the evening’s wide-ranging program was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor (k. 491), a familiar but far from hackneyed Mozart masterpiece.  The mysterious opening theme sets one’s mind on edge and goes on to develop in the most heart-grabbing manner.

The larghetto second movement makes the deepest inroad. As musicologist Robert Pierron wrote in his excellent program notes, “ … the dialogue between the unforgettable cantilena of the piano and the polyphony of the woodwinds is one of the most subtle written by Mozart -- a domain where he remains unequalled”. 

Sensitive to the concerto form, Lupu chooses to play within the orchestra as opposed to riding on top of it. His symbiosis with the classical instrumentation is total and his keyboard touch of surpassing perfection. I sat 21 rows back from the Auditorium stage but, thanks to brilliant acoustics, Lupu’s controlled pianissimos floated across the space uninhibited. His tone is something to behold – even his Mozartean trills make beautiful music.

The audience refused to let him go in peace. He was called back for six curtain calls amid raucous rhythmic clapping. Finally, with another of his shallow nods, he succumbed and produced a short, light encore.The encore was "Einsamen Blumen" the third piece from Schumann's "Scenes from the Forest", Waldszenen Opus 82. The audience went wild.

Conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe was the charismatic Russian-born Vladimir Jurowski, a leading figure among the top orchestras in Britain, Germany and Russia. His direction is detailed and vigorous, cuing every phrase of significance and immersing himself in the music. He adds a little dance of joy at the end of each number.

The Chamber Orchestra is a sort of pickup band of prominent European soloists who come together for specific engagements while pursing solo or ensemble careers at the same time. 

Another Mozart delight came after the interlude, the Symphony No. 38 in D major (k.504), the Prague, was confidently rendered under Jurowski’s firm hand.

The varied program began with a rarely performed Bohuslav Martinu Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani, an intense and unsettling work from 1938 that was unknown to me and probably the majority of the audience. It is said to reflect pre-war anxieties felt by Martinu and his Czech countrymen. 

And as a special treat, six soloists from the orchestra came together to interpret the Leos Janacek Mladi (Youth) for wind sextet. Virtuoso turns from flutist Clara Andrada, French clarinetist Romain Guyot and bassoonist Alec-Frank Gemmil and their colleagues brought this charming short piece to scintillating life.


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