Klaus Tennstedt, Vol. LI;  Radu Lupu  -  Brahms  (2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1251)
Item# C1970
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Klaus Tennstedt, Vol. LI;  Radu Lupu  -  Brahms  (2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1251)
C1970. KLAUS TENNSTEDT Cond. London Phil.: 'Tragic' Overture; Symphony #3 in F; w. RADU LUPU: Piano Concerto #1 in d (all Brahms). [The poetic second movement of the Concerto is duly memorable!] (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1251, Live Performance, 7 April, 1983, Royal Festival Hall, London. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.


“Although I had the privilege in the 1980s of attending a memorable performance of the Bruckner Eighth by Tennstedt with the Chicago Symphony, and perhaps one or two other concerts that have not definitely stayed in my memory, somehow I have not heretofore found myself motivated to seek out his performances. The few studio recordings I heard struck me as being good but not exceptional; and while he was by all accounts far more inspired in live performance, I had not encountered any instances of such on disc until requesting and receiving this set. Well, some old dogs can learn new tricks, and what I hear in this concert has definitely put Tennstedt on my personal radar screen in a big way.

Readers of FANFARE will know of my veneration of Bruno Walter. What astounded me immediately upon hearing the opening chords of the Tragic Overture, and what followed thereafter, was the uncanny similarity of Tennstedt’s interpretation to Walter’s studio recording with the Columbia Symphony, almost as if the elder maestro had been reincarnated. The overall orchestral sonority, the weighting of chords, the shaping and articulation of phrases, the shading of dynamics, are strikingly alike. This is not to say that Tennstedt is a mere epigone - far from it. A subtle but distinctive difference is that Walter places greater emphasizes upon a lyrical, singing line and overall blending of the sound, whereas Tennstedt devotes more attention to dramatic thrust (shades of the younger Walter!) and distinct articulation of instrumental voices. But what unites them is a clear common allegiance to the grand German Romantic tradition of interpretation, albeit one less subjective and prone to extremes than Furtwängler. All the foregoing also holds true for the Brahms Third Symphony that follows. In all four movements, as in the Overture, Tennstedt takes slightly broader tempos than did Walter in his late studio recordings. The one marked difference occurs in the postlude to the Allegro finale - one of the most difficult passages in the orchestral literature to get exactly right, in my estimation - in which Tennstedt significantly broadens the tempo and has the oscillating violin figures flutter and float to the softest of landings.

The performance of the Piano Concerto #1 find Walter and Tennstedt diverging, though in Walter’s case we have no late-period recording for comparison, which skews any comparison significantly. In Walter’s two surviving live performances, with Horowitz in 1936 and Curzon in 1951, the first movements respectively time out at a blazing 18:13 and a more moderate but still energetic 20:49. By contrast, Tennstedt and Lupu requires 23:40 to traverse the same craggy musical terrain. Theirs is a weighty performance on a heroic scale, with the following two movements having similarly broad timings of 14:18 and 12:51. Normally, for me any performance in which the first movement requires more than 22 movements to play crosses a yellow line, with more than 23 minutes going into the red zone of elephantine monumentalism. (Am I the only person who finds the much-lauded Jochum/Gilels recording - by two artists I usually much admire - to be a total dud?) But here, Tennstedt and Lupu, while occasionally pushing the envelope for me, make this approach work. One key is that Lupu—who died only a week ago, as I type these lines in late April - skillfully alternates Olympian keyboard histrionics with extended passages of tender introspection, even in the first movement, transporting listeners in those moments to another world. For his part, Tennstedt never for a moment confuses monumentality with stasis; there is always a sense of unstoppable forward momentum that never drags. Conductor and pianist are clearly of one mind and heart in their shared approach, in a true interpretive marriage rather than a weekend cohabitation.

The sound quality is quite good; as usual, St. Laurent provides only tray cards with photos and contents listings but no notes. While there is another live Brahms Third Symphony by Tennstedt from 1992 that has been issued on disc, the Concerto #1 is a unique addition to the conductor’s discography. And, while Lupu made an excellent studio recording of the Concerto in 1975 with this same orchestra under Edo de Waart, the coincidental timing of this release with his passing makes it a fitting tribute to him as well - and, for my money, captures him in a more imaginative, poetic mood as well. This is not only definitely a ‘keeper’, but for me a spur to further investigation of these two great artists; highly recommended.”

- James A. Altena, FANFARE

“If Mr. 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 the critic Alex Ross put it, comes ‘as close to musical perfection as you could ask’.

’But I did not really play the piano as an end in itself’, Mr. 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 Mr. Lupu was sometimes compared. Mr. 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, Mr. Lupu placed fifth at the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna in 1965 before sweeping to victory at the Cliburn finals in Fort Worth 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Lupu’s Carnegie Hall debut in April 1967. Harold Schonberg, also in THE TIMES, thought the Brahms First Concerto, with which Mr. 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’.

Mr. 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, Mr. Lupu recorded duets with the violinists Szymon Goldberg and Kyung Wha Chung, and two-piano or four-hand works with Mr. Barenboim and Murray Perahia.

‘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?’”

David Allen, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 20 April, 2022

“A sure sign that there’s something special about Radu Lupu is the awe that he inspires in other top performers. Talking to THE NEW YORKER critic Alex Ross a while ago, Mitsuko Uchida called him ‘the most talented guy I have ever met’. (Ross also wrote about Lupu in 2005, and described a Lupu recording as ‘one of the most beautiful piano records ever made’.) The gifted young pianist Kirill Gerstein described Lupu’s uniqueness well in a recent interview:

When asked what it is that makes Lupu such a significant pianist, Gerstein mused that ‘(Lupu) transcends any technical or musical issues and creates a certain magic that he conjures up in the air in the concert hall. He manages to create a very intimate atmosphere. It is something that you can’t get from a recording’, Gerstein continued, ‘you must experience it live. His sound in the concert hall is absolutely irreplaceable’.

What is it about Lupu’s sound, then? Sound is notoriously hard to describe in words, but here’s a stab at it. The basic tone of the piano is, on its own, quite neutral by comparison with other instruments. This means that the sound worlds evoked by the piano vary enormously, depending on how different composers write for it. In the core classical repertoire (Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert), for which Lupu is best known, you expect a sound that is muscular, objective, straightforward. In another school of piano writing (extending, say, from Chopin to Debussy and Scriabin), something more diaphanous and sensual seems appropriate. Here, for comparison, is the same pianist, Claudio Arrau, playing in one style, and the other.

What Lupu somehow has done, I think, is to find greater amplitude, more layered gradations of subtlety, within the world of the basic classical sound than anyone else. His playing is infinitely refined without ever exceeding the bounds of what’s idiomatic for the music….to me, it’s as if a new light glows from the very heart of the piece. I remember, a few years ago, hearing Lupu play the quietest, strangest, but maybe most compelling ‘Appassionata’ I’ve ever heard. Not a quiet piece, you would think, but, actually, a lot of the final movement is marked ‘quiet’ in the score, and playing it this way imparts a nocturnal quality.

There’s another facet to the excitement of a Lupu concert: he no longer records. You know that when you hear him play, you will never hear the piece like this again….when you go to his concerts, your ears and brain have to drink in all they can. There are details of his performances that I can remember years later….But I also know that there were many more such details than I could possibly remember. They have left a vague imprint of wonderment, as after a dream….That sound again. Instead of foreground and background, melody and accompaniment, there seemed to be a whole ecosystem of sound: lines emerging, glowing briefly, then fading.”

- Leo Carey, THE NEW YORKER, 24 Jan., 2013