Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Radu Lupu and the Wiener Symphoniker

Konzerthaus, 07/10/2011

Wiener Symphoniker, Heinrich Schiff, Radu Lupu
Weber: Overture to Oberon, J. 306
Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber
Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 5, op. 73, 'Emperor'

Heinrich Schiff has never distinguished himself as a conductor and his true calling remains being a cellist as well as one of Europe’s most highly respected cello teachers. He got a decent response from that instrument in the Weber, the few bars of viola and cello divisi in the introduction played with a burnished, horn-like sound. But one moment does not a concert make, particularly when the direction of anything else you care to name is so incompetent.

I know the Hindemith well from my student orchestra days, and dare say we sounded more coherent when note-bashing our way through it for the second or third time than the Symphoniker did on Friday. With no indication from Schiff that any voice should be prominent except, astonishingly, for the horns, the first movement was a cacophonous mess. The Scherzo’s incremental build-up in momentum was cocked up with an early crescendo and the D major rupturing of the ostinato sounded oddly inconsequential. The less said about the jazz-inflected counterpoint the better. There was some evidence of coordination in the Andantino but Schiff couldn’t settle on a tempo, and the fourth movement was the same blustery racket as the first. Our conductor’s laboured exhortations in the final movement, either ignored or simply too unintelligible to be followed, pointed towards Star Wars brass from which we were thankfully if only serendipitously spared. This is a straightforward work which practically conducts itself, but poor playing in every instrumental department is perhaps an indication that not all the blame for this travesty should be piled at Schiff’s door.

The Beethoven saw some improvement, though tempi were dangerously unstable and I do not exaggerate when I report that the performance would have fallen apart had it not been for Radu Lupu’s stealth conducting, something he is often mistakenly fingered for doing but was beyond doubt here. The slight raising of the left hand before resting it on the keys was subtle enough the first time and became, before long, a blatant upbeat-downbeat motion. In a rare moment of alertness Schiff caught wind of this and there was a passive-aggressive body language exchange before the second movement which Lupu stopped from escalating with a nonchalant shrug. Naturally the first thing he does after the wretched thing is over is leap up and give Schiff a long warm hug. Aside from him being a mensch I don’t really know what to make of that.

On the orchestral side it may have been an incoherent Emperor, but it was worth hearing for Lupu’s exceptional control and anti-struggle for the heart and soul of modern-day pianism. Like most pianists Lupu is aware he will hit a wrong note just as it is too late to correct it and unlike most pianists he adjusts the force he will strike the note with so rapidly that you barely notice the error. Weight is applied from the fingers and rarely distributed uniformly, though never, with touch this commanding, just because he can. He has long been the wise old man of voicing, but the perception here was of a different order to his usual cautiously considered manner; something more acute upon which hung the defining aesthetic questions of what it means to play the piano in this day and age, only for him to reveal, much like Michelangeli, at once how inescapable and irrelevant those questions are. In this performance we saw, however tamed, much of his once barnstorming technique intact, and yet reconciled and even intimately attuned with the poetic character works under his hands so often take on, as if they were always meant to be played that way. The Fourth may seem the more obvious Lupu vehicle because we are used to looking at works like the Emperor in a certain way, and as belonging to a certain kind of pianist. Lupu never really bothers to argue otherwise in his typically eloquent fashion, though with the dialectic present in his playing on this occasion the indirect indictment could not have been more damning.


His encore was, of course, the E flat Intermezzo from op. 117. There is always his widely acclaimed recording of these Brahms piano works to fall back on and the style has not changed appreciably, but in the treatment of musical line I sensed something quite different, with at the considerable risk of misinterpretation, with Schenkerian underpinnings. To write about such playing in the seemingly prosaic terms of analytical technique is regarded in certain quarters as heresy, though it might equally be said that eschewing the role such formal matters play in our aesthetic satisfaction is to embrace crackpots such as Hanslick and theories of conveniently indefinable autonomous beauty. In any case, Lupu has lived with these pieces for half a lifetime and would not be able to perform them the way he does without understanding their inner relationships, but to project, through voicing alone, a middleground rich in musical possibility while maintaining the op. 117 illusion  that only the simplest of means is used – is a feat which shows his touch and insight to be truly singular.

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