Decca has taken the opportunity of Radu Lupu's sixty-fifth birthday to repackage his complete solo recordings for that label in a convenient and economical bargain box. Veteran pianophiles will have long since experienced and acknowledged this great artist's remarkable gifts, and may well own one or more of the recordings anthologized herein. However, for collectors unfamiliar with Lupu's achievements and his regrettably few outings in the recording studio, this superb retrospective is tailor-made.
Suffice it to say that Lupu is both a formidable virtuoso and a consummate musician. His technique is second to none, the refulgent sonorities he coaxes from his instrument quasi-orchestral in their kaleidoscopic array, his grasp of structure and style comprehensive, and his sensitivity to lyrical nuances instinctive.
These qualities are particularly well suited to the solo repertoire he has chosen to record: Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Mozart (not for Decca, however)--and pre-eminently Schubert. I doubt if there is, or ever has been, a greater interpreter of this composer than Lupu. Not even Richter manages to sound Schubert's depths as thoroughly and effortlessly at Lupu. This anthology is therefore worth purchasing for its generous helping of Schubert Sonatas and shorter works. Among the highlights of this selection are exhaustively, even exhaustingly, cogent traversals of the Impromptus (no hint of the salon or of over-familiarity here); a devastating account of the haunting A-Minor sonata D. 845--all the more shattering for its surface understatement; a richly-textured version of the well-known A-Major Sonata, D. 664 that rivals, and in my estimation surpasses, Richter's famous recording for lyrical splendor and depth of insight; and a performance of Schubert's final Sonata, D. 960 that can only be called sublime--an unforgettable interpretation that gets everything right. But then, Lupu tends to get nearly everything right whenever he performs Schubert: tempo, dynamic contrasts, mood, touch, texture and of course the all-important harmonic and tonal displacements. He understands with astonishing acuity the depth of Schubert's existential angst, even even at the most seemingly carefree moments--though he never wears Schubertian trauma on his sleeve (as some other renowned Schubertians, such as Richter, Arrau and Uchida, occasionally do).
If I have spent a disproportionately large portion of this review on Lupu's Schubert, that is because this pianist is one of the the few who fully appreciates, and consistently realizes, the extent of the composer's achievement in piano literature. And it may well be that Lupu understands Schubert more acutely than any interpreter since Schnabel first alerted us to the full stature of these inexhaustible works.
I must not, however, slight Lupu's achievement in Brahms and Schumann. He brings his poetic sensibilities and keen intellect to bear on both, with predictably satisfying results. Lupu's gifts are abundantly evident in late Brahms; these elusive works in lesser hands can seem both enigmatic and insubstantial, but Lupu makes the listener aware of their sensuous beauty without slighting their inwardness. He seems less attuned to the ruggedness of the early Sonata, op. 5; I prefer the more objective and tougher approaches of Curzon and Katchen--he nevertheless does justice to this sprawling work's majesty as well as its lyricism. Likewise in Schumann's evergreen miniatures from op. 15 Lupu enables us to "see eternity in a grain of sand," while in the more ambitious Humoreske, op. 20 and Kreisleriana, he effectively integrates what might seem like a patchwork of short sections into an organic whole. Moreover, Lupu's sumptuous tone and hypersensitive touch are perfectly suited to Schumann's sound-world as to Schubert's.
I leave Beethoven for last only because I find Lupu's forays into this composer (comparatively) less satisfying than his astonishingly perceptive Schubert, Brahms and Schumann. Lupu's take on Beethoven is predictably but excessively rhapsodic. The Third Concerto (the pianist's first recording for Decca, and the only concertante work included in this anthology) is a case in point: in this work phrasing, rubato and dynamics are waywardly, if at times intriguingly, personal. The same goes, to a greater or lesser extent, for the three famous "named" sonatas: Lupu's approach, though rapturously beautiful to the senses and highly nuanced, lacks the incisiveness, even abruptness, we expect in Beethoven. One is reminded of both the vitues and vices of Arrau's Beethoven (Lupu's interpretation of the "Waldstein," for instance, strongly recalls Arrau's, though with more plausible tempi). But I mustn't dwell on these shortcomings, for there is also much to enjoy in the two discs devoted to Beethoven--including a particularly compelling account of the Thirty-Two Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, and a delightfully genial traversal of the underappreicated Rondos op. 51 (even if Lupu's lyrical approach tends to turn these works into the Impromptus Schubert never wrote).
Throughout this set the engineers have provided oustandingly realistic piano sonorities--Lupu's prismatic play of color and tonal shadings is conveyed so vividly as to be nearly palpable. Likewise, his characteristically wide dyanamic range--from the barest whisper to majestic, and at times appropriately cruchy, fortissimos--is faithfully caught. Given the diverse range of occasions, venues, technicians and producers involved--from the analog era to recent digital--the sound is of consistently high quality. Occasionally (in the more recent recordings) I noticed a slight overabundance of "hall" resonance, though not so much as to blur detail. Documentation is good; notes are brief but sufficient.
In sum, then, this is a uniquely valuable collection, representing the considerable achievement of a pianist who must be accounted one of the very greatest of his generation. Strongly recommended to pianophiles generally, but most of all to earnest Schubertians.