In a muted spotlight on the stage of Bass Performance Hall, presented in the Cliburn Concerts series, he did it again Monday night. It was 47 years after the then-20-year-old Romanian took the first prize in the second Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
It was a program, and these were performances, that yielded nothing to expectations of facile flash. This was the antithesis of what we’re likely to hear at this spring’s Cliburn Competition. Even music that probably wasn’t meant to be all that serious was played very seriously indeed. At his best, Lupu cast a spell.
Never has the second set of Debussy’s Preludes seemed quite so otherworldly, such an out-of-body experience. In dynamics that scarcely rose above a mezzo-forte, in amazing nuances of half-light, Lupu conjured up eerie atmospheres in “Brouillards,” “Feuilles mortes” and “La terasse des audiences du clair de lune.”
He evoked iridescent rustles and ripples in “Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses” and “Ondine.” He savored the quirkiness of “Général Lavine” (a quasiportrait of a clown and juggler). He found pure beauty in “Bruyères.” This was playing of exquisite imagination and amazing control.
I had more mixed feelings in the second set of Schubert Impromptus. The genre suggests a relatively light touch, but Lupu wiped the smiles off the music’s face and sought darker undercurrents. I was more conscious of the means — the manipulations of tempo, the delayed downbeats — than of the ends.
Schubert has his dark side, to be sure, but trying to impose it here seems a case of mind over matter. The last of the four pieces is marked Allegro scherzando — a joking allegro — but Lupu allowed hardly a suggestion of playfulness.
Lupu’s improvisational manner in César Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue made sense, up to a point. Franck was famous, after all, for his organ improvisations, and barely 30 years after his death, his pupil Charles Tournemire was writing that people couldn’t imagine how freely Franck had played his own music.
But especially in the transition to the fugue, all the fussing over harmonic niceties detracted too much from the music’s trajectory. It felt interminable.
At the recital’s end, Lupu dedicated his single encore to a friend who had just died. It was a heart-stopping performance of Debussy’s “Des pas sur la neige.” Never have footsteps in snow seemed, or sounded, so sad.