To look at Radu Lupu--the solemn and stoic figure who trudges on stage to his piano and then, after expending great reserves of Romantic emotion there, trudges back just as unacknowledgingly of his public--is to realize the phenomenon of the artistic on-and-off switch.
But to hear the Romanian pianist perform, as he did Monday before a very acknowledging public at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, is to know that switches don't matter--so long as they're turned on when it counts. A distinct musical personality remains just as distinct whether he makes warm, personal contact with his applauding audience or not.
Radu Lupu does not.
Let there be no doubt, however, that his way with Beethoven's two penultimate sonatas--Opus 109 and Opus 110--revealed more than a smiling face ever could.
He seemed to demonstrate the axiom that Beethoven should be played with Chopin in mind (and vice versa). Thus the first of these philosophic monuments emerged as a thing of fleeting thoughts and soft-toned soundings. That's not to say that Lupu's treatment was glib or superficial.
It just means that, for him, the hard coming to grips with these introspections doesn't necessarily require the emphatic nailing down of notes often resorted to by others. It means that lyric flights can be just as meaningful as earthbound brooding.
But Lupu didn't give short shrift to the vehement fugal materials, nor fail to provide plenty of climactic buildup.
Opus 110 somehow seemed better suited to the musician's sensibilities, though, just on the basis of its more pronounced structure. What in Opus 109 could be perceived as inchoate here attached itself to greater pulse and accent, and Lupu's small tone and light touch stood in relief against the tragic defeat Beethoven later delineates. But even the section just before the finale refused to glow: It remained Chopinesque, ineffably tender rather than spiritually grand.
With Schumann's Fantasy in C, which followed intermission, the pianist might have persuaded some that his more significant strengths lie in such a full-scale Romantic work as this.
For it is here that the pure, almost irrational, emotions rule. And Lupu certainly gave them their head. He could summon power for the stormy outbursts, grandeur for the ego-bloated flourish, a singing line for melodic tenderness and the most delicate tone for melancholy. The final movement was excruciatingly beautiful in its attenuated reverie.
The logical encore would almost have to be Schumann's "Traeumerei," played with the kind of limpid simplicity that can come only from a touch-technique of barely depressing the keys. Afterward Radu Lupu turned off the switch, of course, and trudged to the wings.