Schubert – Piano sonata in D major, D850
Debussy – Préludes, Book I
Radu Lupu (piano)
This was a concert of two halves, consisting of an intriguing, albeit often perplexing performance of Schubert’s D major piano sonata, D850, followed by a straightforwardly excellent account of Debussy’s first book of piano Préludes. Most of the Schubert sounded more akin to eavesdropping upon a private musing than to a conventional public ‘performance’. Relatively rarely did the dynamic level rise above piano; rarely indeed did it reach forte. In terms of the interpretation’s withdrawn Romanticism, I do not think I have ever heard Schubert sound so close to Schumann – and to late Schumann at that. This was a disturbing reading, to which there was no consolation, although perhaps this is as it should be, at least on occasion. Sometimes I wondered whether the extreme tempo fluctuations were taken too far, but they were never taken so far as to lose my attention. This was particularly the case during the first two movements and parts of the third. Having said that, the scherzo began with a rhythmic and metrical precision, which in context was quite startling. The same could be said of each statement of the finale’s rondo theme, wonderfully playful in its presentation but never distended. The quotation from Schumann in the programme notes, referring to a satire on the style of Pleyel and Vanhal, was spot on for this reading, for there was by now a winning, wry humour to Radu Lupu’s interpretation. I had no reservations at all concerning this movement, its final bars an exemplar of the beauty of Lupu’s pianissimo touch. However, I did wonder whether there might have been more of an opposing tendency earlier on.
There was a considerably greater dynamic range to the Debussy Préludes, although the louder passages never sounded strident. They, just as much as the softer music, truly sounded as if the piano were an instrument without hammers. For instance, the tension mounted in La cathédrale engloutie, in a fashion that put me in mind of La mer, until the cathedral bells truly rang forth: Mussorgsky was not far behind. ‘Atmosphere’ – a dubious word without elucidation, I know, but I shall take a chance – was judiciously chosen and developed in every piece. Nor did this exert any detrimental effect upon precision, as was clear from the opening of the very first prelude, Danseuses de Delphes. Lupu’s shaping of the climaxes in Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest was exemplary, although this had a strange knock-on effect upon the next piece, La fille aux cheveux de lin. Its opening note was strangely loud, as if a hangover from the previous prelude, although thereafter there was no such problem. Perhaps La sérénade interrompue was a little too peremptory, too interrompue for my taste, but taste rather than anything more fundamental is probably the operative word here. The series came to a sparkling end with Minstrels; the sprung rhythms of the opening promised well, and such promise was delivered with interest, without anything of the showily ‘virtuosic’ to compromise this eminently musical account.