I don’t know how Radu Lupu did it. No one else does either. But I have a few theories.
The incomparable Romanian pianist, who died on Sunday, was admired not only by a large audience that he captivated but also by the greatest pianists of his time, even legendary ones such as Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim and Murray Perahia. On Lupu’s 70th birthday in 2015, pianist Kirill Gerstein described Lupu in a tribute to the New York Review of Books as “much more than a great pianist”, one who took the listener “deep beneath and way above” the surface of the music. André Previn once told me that Lupu was the most magical pianist he had ever worked with.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a review of Lupu, including mine, that doesn’t comment on his gruff, bear-like appearance. Bearded, a bit wild, he walked sadly on stage, barely, if at all, recognizing the audience, sat on the ordinary wooden chair he preferred to a posh piano bench. The opening notes, whether by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann or Brahms, sounded like nothing you had ever heard. You were instantly transported.
We don’t know much about Lupu beyond the standard program bios and a Wikipedia entry. He avoided interviews. He did not allow his concerts to be recorded or broadcast. He chased away photographers and reporters. There are very few videos (a Mozart concerto, that’s about it). Put Lupu’s name in a book search on Amazon and all that comes up is an issue of the Academic Journal of Romanian Studies. He stopped making commercial records in the last two decades of his gigs, which ended in 2019. As for social media: you have to be kidding.
That’s partly how he did it. The music of the moment, the meaning of lived, non-virtualized, was everything for Lupu. His presence was extraordinary.
He took to the stage looking like an early 20th century anarchist. And he played as such, like a musician delighted with a vision of a utopian society. Famous for his lyricism, he wove Schubert’s melody into a haunting web. He brought fiery passion to a Brahms rhapsody. He made you listen with a zeal you didn’t know you had in you, but it was also a communal zeal, the zeal of the idealistic anarchist who believes in the inherent goodness in people to watch over each other.
Lupu didn’t particularly like the recording studio, but he made records for three decades, almost all of them for the British label Decca Classics (originally released as London in the US), and in every one of them. them, he somehow manages to convey what should not be possible to convey. They are beautifully produced, allowing Lupu-ian’s unique range of colors and textures to shine beautifully even without Decca bothering to remaster them in high resolution.
Upon learning of Lupu’s death, I put on his recordings of Brahms’s last piano pieces, Opp. 117, 118 and 119, which he recorded in his youth. I was instantly, yes, transported. It is absolutely true that its depth, its ability to impart beauty and meaning, is beyond comprehension. If the truth, in fact, has a sound, this is it.
Luckily, we were able to hear quite a bit of Lupu. He often appeared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was a favorite of Zubin Mehta (who recorded Beethoven’s piano concertos with Lupu and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra), Carlo Maria Giulini (who was one of the first conductors to champion Lupu in America and whose 1980 interpretation of Schumann’s Piano Concerto was exceptionally broadcast) and Previn (of course). Lupu was also the soloist in a memorable rendition of Schumann’s concerto in one of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s most personal concerts, one which included the premiere of Franco Donatoni’s “Esa (in Cauda V)”, the tribute of the dying Italian composer and his farewell to his famous pupil, Salonen. Hearing the ethereal yet palpably substantial of Lupu, Schumann then captured that place between being and non-being.
Lupu left us just enough to know what he was. There are about 25 hours of recordings, but many of his most notable pieces – Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Opus 111, key among them – have disappeared with him. But his range of music was considerably wider than what we have. He never recorded the works of Bartók or Janácek, in which he was breathtaking during his last concert in LA in 2006 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Ultimately, we have less documentation of Lupu than any other contemporary musician of his stature.
But in the age of every living moment captured on someone’s cellphone and posted online somewhere, in a time when life is less lived than deferred, Lupu left us with just enough sparkle to excite our imaginations. . We must ward it off as we must ward off grown-ups whose voices we no longer hear and whose presence we no longer feel. Very often, and for this very reason, they can be the ones who inspire us the most. Not knowing how can actually serve to keep Lupu alive for us.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.