Radu Lupu, pianist who awed listeners, dies at 76

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Radu Lupu, pianist who awed listeners, dies at 76
Preferring the stage (and an office chair) to the recording studio, he enthralled audiences with ruminative performances that evoked the otherworldly.

by David Allen

NEW YORK, NY.- Radu Lupu, a pianist of rare refinement whose ruminative, enigmatic performances and recordings wove spells over his listeners, induced awe among his colleagues and confirmed him as one of the finest musicians ever to have graced his instrument, died Sunday at his home in Lausanne, Switzerland. He was 76.

His manager, Jenny Vogel, confirmed the death. She did not specify a cause but said Lupu had struggled with a series of prolonged illnesses.

The Romanian-born Lupu was no ordinary virtuoso. He was a conjurer of sounds, a spontaneous and sometimes eccentric player of patient lyricism and hypnotic tone, distinguished as much by his control over the ebbing of notes as by his fastidious initial touch.

Uninterested in showmanship, with a wary stage presence and an allergy to public relations, Lupu shone in the music of the twilight, his rapt poetic sensibility working wonders in the shadowy ambiguities of Schubert and, above all, Brahms. Critic Fiona Maddocks once wrote that he appeared to take “aural dictation from the ether.”

Quickly abandoning the dazzle of the Prokofiev Second Concerto with which he won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition as a young musician in 1966, Lupu reportedly said that he would have liked to have made a career playing “nothing but slow movements.” He settled on a repertoire of the more reflective music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, with Debussy, Franck, Janacek and Bartok among the few other composers he added in concert.

“The decision has nothing to do with music I like, but rather music that likes me,” Lupu explained to The Chicago Tribune in a rare interview in 1994. “I love Chopin, but when I play it, it has always sounded like Brahms or something. I play it more for myself.”

Whatever Lupu played, he evoked the mystical, the otherworldly. He sat on an office chair rather than a piano bench, and he leaned ever so slightly back; he seemed less to produce his sound than to elicit it, though thunder was always available for him to summon when necessary.

Critics marveled at the intimacy this apparently diffident figure could create. Writing in The New York Times in 1974, Allen Hughes called it “alchemy” — “that mysterious something that goes beyond technique, erudition and general musicality to reach into the sensibilities of listeners.”

Lupu’s performances did not always come off, but his was playing of such an exalted quality that it intoxicated fellow pianists: Daniel Barenboim noted Lupu’s “ability to improvise as if he was discovering what he is doing at the spur of the moment.” Mitsuko Uchida called him “the most talented guy I have ever met.”

For pianist Kirill Gerstein, hearing Lupu was an experience that approached transcendence. “The instrument, the craftsmanship, even the compositions themselves recede into the background,” Gerstein wrote in The New York Review of Books in 2015, “and there remains a lone figure communicating not just music, but something deeply humane.”

Radu Lupu was born Nov. 30, 1945, in Galati, a city on the Danube near Romania’s border with the Soviet Union. He was the only child of Meyer Lupu, a lawyer, and Ana (Gabor) Lupu, who taught French.

Radu barely spoke a word until he was almost 3; as he tended to sing rather than speak to express himself, his parents gave him a piano when he was 5. He took lessons from the age of 6.

“But I did not really play the piano as an end in itself,” Lupu told The Christian Science Monitor in 1970. “I made tunes on it, and from the very beginning I regarded myself as a composer. I was sure, and everybody else was sure, that one day I would become a famous composer.”

He gave up composing only when he was 16, four years after his professional debut as a pianist in Brasov, Romania. He trained at the Bucharest Conservatory with Florica Musicescu, who had previously taught another cultivated Romanian, Dinu Lipatti, to whom Lupu was sometimes compared. Lupu attended the Moscow Conservatory for much of the 1960s; his professors there included Heinrich Neuhaus, tutor to two temperamentally different artists, Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels.

“I found even the most elementary rudiments of piano technique very difficult,” he confessed to The Monitor, “because this needed great self-discipline, and as for years I had imagined that I would one day become a composer, I had always felt that this sort of perfection wasn’t going to be needed.”

Even so, Lupu placed fifth at the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna in 1965 before sweeping to victory at the Cliburn finals in Fort Worth, Texas, the next year. “I really do not like competition at all,” he told the press then. He nonetheless shared first prize at the George Enescu International Competition in Bucharest in 1967 and triumphed at the Leeds International Piano Competition in England in 1969.

Fanny Waterman, the founder of the Leeds, recalled Lupu inviting the jury to tell him which of the Beethoven concertos to play; they declined, and he won with the first movement of the Third. He recorded that Beethoven with Lawrence Foster and the London Symphony Orchestra in 1970 — a prelude to his later complete survey of the five concertos with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic.

Despite such successes, he already struck listeners as anything but a standard-issue product of the competition circuit. “He is somewhat different from the regulation contest winner, in that he is not primarily a brilliant and impeccable technician,” Raymond Ericson wrote in the Times of Lupu’s Carnegie Hall debut in April 1967. Harold Schonberg, also in the Times, thought the Brahms First Concerto, with which Lupu returned to the hall in 1972, “willful, episodic and mannered,” but allowed that it at least had “the virtue of not being stamped from the same old cookie cutter.”

Lupu, who retired in 2019, made few recordings for a pianist of his stature; he admitted to tensing up in the presence of studio and even radio microphones. A boxed set of his solo releases on Decca runs to a mere 10 discs, the last from the mid-1990s. As well as further concertos, including Mozart, Schumann and Grieg, Lupu recorded duets with violinists Szymon Goldberg and Kyung Wha Chung, and two-piano or four-hand works with Barenboim and Murray Perahia.

If Lupu’s solo records capture only a hint of the aura he exhibited in concert, his ethereality is made close to tangible on several of them, including one of Schubert’s Impromptus from 1982 that draws impossible tension from the natural flow of its singing lines; a pair of Schubert sonatas that won a Grammy Award in 1996; and a collection of late Brahms from the 1970s that is suffused with such understanding, such light and shade, that the result, as critic Alex Ross put it, comes “as close to musical perfection as you could ask.”

Lupu married cellist Elizabeth Wilson, a fellow student in Moscow, in 1971; their marriage ended in divorce. He was married to Delia Bugarin, a violinist, for 32 years. She survives him, along with a son, Daniel, and two grandchildren.

Lupu’s critics sometimes accused him of looking aloof onstage, such was his focus on the music at hand. But speaking to The Chicago Tribune in 1994, he denied that he was playing only for himself.

“The audience element is the most important element in the concert,” he said. “But it is also true that if I can make music for myself, even while practicing, and be moved by it, then that will project to the audience. So it may seem I am playing for myself, but it’s not quite like that.

“Why should I make a big show of the whole thing?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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