In this day of chatty, audience-friendly musicians, Radu Lupu is something of an anomaly, his dour demeanor totally at odds with the uninhibited generosity of his playing. At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday, the Romanian pianist looked as though he had to be forced onstage, where he sat slouched in a chair before the keyboard, only to produce a flood of deeply felt, highly personal revelations.
Brahms' epic F-minor Piano Sonata, Opus 5, can certainly be played more directly than this, blunter in argument and steadier in tempo. But rarely has it sounded more impassioned, more spontaneously exhaled than in the mercurial ebb and flow of Lupu's intense vision. He can make the instrument shriek or sigh; more important, he makes the extreme expression of the moment resonate intelligibly in a larger context.
His lone encore was more Brahms, the first Intermezzo of the Opus 117 set, gently played with lyrically centered poise.
Equally purposeful quietude marked the other end of the program, as Lupu opened at the outer edge of audibility in Ravel's "Pavane pour une infante defunte." In the same composer's evergreen Sonatine, Lupu deployed his extravagant range of color and articulation on behalf of architecture rather than affect, in a warmly shaded but objectively responsive performance.
Gershwin is in many ways a natural partner for Ravel, but Lupu treated them as musical twins, to the American's detriment. The pianist appeared more interested in the accompaniments than the tunes, letting soft-grained melodic lines contribute to imbalances and blurry textures in the Three Preludes. Lupu also stumbled with atypical awkwardness into the B section of a remarkably unbluesy, practically inert central Andante.
Debussy found Lupu back on stylistically congenial ground, running "Masques" with scant break into "Estampes," creating a sort of mega-suite. His "Masques" proved sonically somewhat subdued, though hardly without tension; the three following scenes of "Estampes" then seemed darker and edgier than usual.
With the pictorial elements fluidly focused, Lupu was free to explore emotional subtexts. He takes risks at every turn, and the occasional clinker did little to undermine the richly characterful sweep of the music.