Lupu and Zinman play Beethoven at the zenith

January 21, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

If there's anything better than hearing pianist Radu Lupu play Mozart with conductor David Zinman, it can only be listening to them perform Beethoven.

Last night in Meyerhoff Hall the great Romanian pianist joined Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony in Beethoven's Concerto No. 1 for what was one of the greatest performances of the piece I've ever heard, in the concert hall or on records.

Pianist and conductor have worked together for years on the Beethoven concertos -- there were incandescent Lupu-Zinman Beethoven performances during the conductor's Rochester tenure, and there was a complete cycle in London about 10 years ago that has achieved legendary status among those lucky enough to have heard it. Zinman led the opening tutti with enormous flair, as if to open the door on something tremendous. That expectation was fulfilled in every way.

The First Concerto looks backward at Mozart in its elegance and wit and forward to the mature Beethoven in its energy, dynamism and, in the slow movement, to its visionary mystery. With most pianists, a listener is lucky if he gets one or two of these characteristics; with Lupu, one heard them all.

Then there was the sheer quality of his pianism. This is a pianist who can make the simplest descending scale send chills down the spine. And his articulation -- from a lightness of touch that seems barely touch the keys to muscular attacks that never sound hard -- made it possible to hear all manner of detail, whether an individually turned phrase or a sparkling ornamentation.

No pianist listens more closely to an orchestra than Lupu does. While the entire performance sounded so fresh that it seemed almost like an improvisation, the pianist always listened intently to the orchestra. The result was a performance that combined symphonic sweep with the intimacy of the best chamber music.

The rest of the program did not approach the level of the Beethoven. This week's inclement weather canceled one of the BSO's rehearsals, thus leading to a substitution of Brahms' familiar "Academic Festival Overture" for David Crumb's "Clarino" and to a shortage of time to prepare Sibelius' Symphony No. 4.

The Brahms -- with its scrappy wind and string playing -- sounded as if conductor and orchestra were merely reading the piece.

The mysterious Sibelius Fourth, while played accurately enough, sounded only like a collection of gestures, without the sense of line needed to bring this piece, with its slow moving tectonic masses, to life.

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