“The artist should have his own voice,” pianist Radu Lupu said. “Everyone tells a story differently and that story should be told compellingly and spontaneously. If it is not compelling and convincing, it is without value. The most important thing is to play. Enjoy is not the word, but to be able to feel that I give something genuine of myself. Then I might be satisfied.”
When he passed away at 76 on April 17, 2022 at his home in Lausanne, Switzerland, Lupu was generally regarded as the finest classical pianist of his era. Indeed, he is considered to be among the most talented performers to ever sit in front of the keyboard.
The late John Ardoin, much respected music critic and author, remarked after attending a Lupu recital: “He’s absolutely mesmerizing. When I see him play, I walk away wondering how many have ever performed at his level. He’s in an elite group.”
Alex Ross of The New Yorker recently called Lupu “the supreme living practitioner of his instrument, a magician and artist of the highest order.”
The admiration he engendered was not limited to critics. His fellow musicians held him in very high esteem – Dame Mitsuko Uchida, no middling classical pianist herself, described him as the most remarkable musician she has ever encountered. These sentiments have been echoed by countless others.
Lupu was born on November 30, 1945, in Romania. The son of a lawyer and a French teacher, he hardly spoke a word until he was 3. At 5, he was given a piano, a year later he started taking lessons. His first concert, which consisted solely of his own compositions, came when he was only 12. At the age of 16, he was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Moscow Academy, where he remained for seven years.
Three wins at international piano competitions vaulted him to prominence. In 1966, Lupu took the Gold Medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas (pianist Alicia de Larrocha, who was on the jury, dubbed him a genius). The following year he won the George Enescu International Competition in Bucharest and had another first place showing at the Leeds Competition in England in 1969.
While he was at Leeds, he told authors Wendy Thompson and Fanny Waterman: “I never went to a competition with the aim of competing. If I thought that I wouldn’t have been able to move a finger. I went to play, and I played the way I wanted to play. I think it’s very bad if people try to play in a way they think will please the jury.”
The independent thinking evidenced in those statements was a reflection of Lupu’s maverick personality. Over the years, classic music lovers came to expect the unconventional from him — his approach to recording, concertizing, and dealing with the media have all been well outside the box.
In April of 1970, Lupu made the first of his more than 20 recordings for Decca. Although they are all of impeccable quality — two Grammy nominations, one winner — Lupu was never at home in the recording studio; consequently, his output is quite slender for someone of his standing.
One of his producers at Decca, Michael Haas, said Lupu was such a perfectionist that no one wanted to work with him. In his blog, Haas wrote that Lupu was “notoriously difficult, neurotic, insecure and in a constant state of frustration.”
For example, Haas remembered, “at one point he claimed to have played a wrong note in a take, meaning we shouldn’t use it. It was otherwise perfect and when we replayed the take, there was no wrong note. The problem for Lupu was he sensed his fourth finger reaching for the wrong note before correcting itself. For Lupu, that was enough to qualify for ‘a wrong note.'”
After 1996, due to his dissatisfaction with the process, Lupu stopped recording.
Concerts by Lupu were invariably virtuoso events, with just a touch of the mystical. Sitting in an office chair instead of a piano bench, he seldom made eye contact with the audience. Playing with ruminative lyricism, Lupu was so concentrated, he appeared to be in a trance, directly channeling the composer. More than one critic compared his recitals to séances. Lupu’s playing was the opposite of flashy: he produced a beautiful palette of sound with absolutely no banging theatrics.
Offstage, Lupu disappeared. Initially, he granted a handful of interviews, but soon stopped talking to the press entirely. He had almost no social media presence. Lupu had a singular focus: the work itself.
In one of his rare interviews, he told the Orange County Register: “I try to achieve spontaneity at every level…I work away from the piano a lot, just myself and the score so that nothing can interfere between the music and myself. It’s a very complex process, but I try to find my own voice in the music.”
Radu Lupu profoundly succeeded in locating that voice.