Music Review: The Pianist Radu Lupu at Carnegie Hall

January 28th, 2013

Since the pianist Radu Lupu has not made a new album since the 1990s, his record label has been forced to peddle endless reissues and repackagings of his visionary takes on the German and Austrian masters. A movement from one of his Mozart piano concertos is included in a 2005 compilation called “For the Discriminating Man.”

Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Radu Lupu performing Debussy, Franck and Schubert at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night.

A sortable calendar of noteworthy cultural events in the New York region, selected by Times critics.

Those discriminating men must rise from their gramophones and go hear Mr. Lupu live to be updated on the composers whose solo work he has never recorded. Among them are Franck and Debussy, who were included alongside Schubert’s second set of Impromptus (D. 935) in his recital on Thursday evening at Carnegie Hall.

A few hours before the concert I returned to his classic 1982 version of the impromptus. In some ways his playing is now even lovelier and more polished than it was three decades ago. For every run that has lost some definition, there is another that has grown brighter and crisper.

He is, even more than other artists, a different phenomenon live from what he is on disc. Through speakers, Mr. Lupu’s tone high up on the piano is twinkling and celestalike, delightfully candied, but in the hall the effect is softer and whiter, otherworldly yet lucid.

His silken take on the impromptus was so absorbing as pure sound that it was easy to be distracted from its lack of ideas. Schubert’s repetitions accumulate notoriously. On record Mr. Lupu again and again turns these repeats into intimate dramas. In that 1982 recording of the Impromptu No. 2 in A flat, the second theme seems chastened, barely able to rouse itself for one more go; the trio is a cycle of energy and exhaustion.

At Carnegie all this material merely returned. His impromptus were less serene than sedate and muted, their louds quieted and their quiets loudened.

Mr. Lupu was more fascinating in the repertory newer to him. Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue was the true impromptu here, wandering and fluid, with bursts of brightness elegantly dragged out of uncomfortable silences. In the Chorale he settled on a sepulchral darkness out of which the theme — rolled chords, stark melody — emerged; the acceleration of the Fugue’s ending was less celebratory than tortured.

Mr. Lupu’s account of the second book of Debussy’s “Préludes” was often strange, its rhythms overstretched. He was uninterested in dancing, his “Puerta del Vino” less habanera than military maneuver.

But he played the quotation of “God Save the Queen” that opens “Hommage à S. Pickwick” with refreshing sincerity. His “Bruyères,” like so much on Thursday, had a hushed intimacy; in “Feux d’Artifice” he resisted bombast for sly juxtapositions of fast and slow.

Even in the resistible moments there was a sense of experimentation with sound and theatricality that had been missing in the Schubert. It is that searching, idiosyncratic touch that for decades we have turned to Mr. Lupu, on records and in person, to provide.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 28, 2013

An earlier version of this review misstated the history of Mr. Lupu’s recordings of works by Franck and Debussy. While he has not recorded any of their works for solo piano, he has in fact recorded some of their work: the violin sonatas, with the violinist Kyung-Wha Chung.

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