Alex Ross calls him “probably the greatest pianist alive” and it’s hard to argue with the statement. Romanian pianist Radu Lupu turned 70 yesterday. Here’s a review someone wrote of his local solo recital in 1999.

Lupu takes piano to new places REVIEW: His command of tonal colors and musical structure makes for an astonishing recital.
Published: WED, 2/10/1999

When Radu Lupu sits down at the keyboard and begins to play, you wonder if the thing has been tricked-up somehow. Such sounds, such colors, such a range of attacks seem impossible on a normal piano.

It certainly isn’t possible for a normal pianist.

But then, as he showed Monday night at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, in a recital given under Philharmonic Society auspices, Lupu is something out of this world. His famously gruff demeanor, icy stage presence (he stared down one latecomer) and refusal to grant interviews add to the 53-year-old Romanian pianist’s mystery, but first and foremost, there is the playing.

With Lupu, the piano becomes like one of those psychedelic drawings by Peter Max, with rainbows and trees and birds and planets streaming upward from the sounding board as he plays. The orchestral version of Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante defunte” pales in comparison with Lupu’s version (he opened with it), which takes place in some nether region of billowy clouds, bright sunshine and helium.

That description may leave the impression that Lupu is primarily a colorist, but such is not the case. You might just as well call Cezanne primarily a colorist. The Ravel, in Lupu’s care, had strong direction, a backbone of steel behind all its ether.

And so it went all evening, in music by Gershwin, Debussy, Haydn and Beethoven. He made every note tell. One tried to figure out how he was doing it.

He sits in an ordinary straight-back chair and leans back into it, his arms stretched forward in a straight line. His hands sort of paw at the keyboard and his fingers plunge down and lift up as if they had little weights attached to them.

Lupu maneuvers with the utmost agility from this heavy stance, but the music-making has a special quality because of it. It is very physical. One hears the arms moving, hands pawing, fingers plunging in the phrasing and gestures of the music in a way that other pianists try to smooth out. Lupu’s playing has push and pull, has groundedness, as if the notes had real substance and existed in the world of gravity.

He followed the Ravel with the same composer’s Sonatine, favoring mosaic-like intricacy over atmospheric fog, and then the Three Preludes by Gershwin, de-emphasizing its jazz rhythms, sharpening its phrase endings, staying on top of the beat. It may not have been strictly idiomatic, but it made sense.

Voluptuous basses, throaty mezzo-pianos, rattling fortes and silvery chord clusters characterized his readings of Debussy’s “Masques” and “Estampes,” which completed the first half. There was a casual ease to the loud playing (which made it all the more powerful) and a playfulness in the slow passages (which made them sound spontaneous).

After intermission, Lupu paired Haydn’s Andante with Variations in F minor, a subdued but wondrous work that ends with an apotheosis of its theme, with Beethoven’s last sonata (in C minor, Op. 131), which ends, after an extensive set of variations, in the heavenly ascent of its theme. Lupu contrasted a bejeweled performance of the Haydn — lots of sugar and flowers in the sound but, again, with a backbone — to a headlong, grandiose, roof-rattling account of the Beethoven. He made it sound extemporized, so flexible was the flow, so brusque the contrasts.

The magical ending, fading into the distance, was trounced by an eager clapper. If Lupu has a colicky personality, this audience repaid him in spades, with fussing, coughing, beepers going off, doors slamming. Still, by the conclusion of this marvelous evening, vigorous applause ensued (he gave the E-major Intermezzo, Op. 116, by Brahms, in encore) and even Lupu was smiling just a little.