by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Feb. 28, 2005.
When Beethoven played the solo part in the première of his Third Piano Concerto, in 1803 he introduced a bewitching effect that lingered in the memory of his pupil Carl Czerny. The Largo movement begins with a luminous them in the key of E. Beethoven applied the sustaining pedal throughout, so that the music became a haze of resonating tones—a “holy distant, and celestial Harmony,” Czerny said. According to the musicologist Leon Plantinga, Beethoven composed the Third Concerto just after he wrote his “Heiligenstadt Testament,” in which he confessed that he would rather retire from society than publicly admit his deafness. There were many moments during Radu Lupu’s recent traversal of the five Beethoven piano concertos, with the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, when that withdrawn wounded figure came to life. In the Largo, you could almost see Beethoven walking away from his stormy C-minor world—or, if you prefer, walking from his world toward ours.
Lupu, a gentle genius of the piano, was born in Romania in 1945. With his scraggly beard, shy manner, and piercing eyes, he looks less like a jet-set virtuoso than an unsung radical poet, the kind you would expect to find huddled over gnomic manuscripts in the corner of an obscure café. In his youth, he played as loud and fast as anyone; he won the Van Cliburn Competition in 1966 with a thunderous performance of the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto, evidence of which exists on a VAI recording. In the following years, Lupu disavowed showpieces and devoted himself to the high Austro-German repertory, from Mozart to Brahms. In 1970, he made a recording of Brahms’s Intermezzos Opus 117 that is in my personal pantheon of the most beautiful piano records ever made. At a Carnegie recital in 1996, Lupu offered as his last encore the slow movement of Schubert’s “Little” A-Major Sonata, and it wasn’t so much a performance as a glimpse of a perfect world. No pianist gets a lovelier tone out of the instrument. How he does it is a bit of a mystery: the piano is, after all, an impersonal machine of levers and hammers. But an A above middle C sounds different under Lupu’s finger. It glows from within.
It was strange, at first, to see this most confiding of pianists holding forth in front of the august Cleveland Orchestra. Yet the intimacy remained. I’ve rarely witnessed an orchestra and a soloist listening to each other so intently: this was a conversational give-and-take, not a tug-of-war between pre-set tempos. Franz Welser-Möst, the Cleveland’s conductor, often kept the dynamics muted to chamber-music levels, so that Lupu never had to fight to be heard. In a classic Cleveland sound-mirage, string pizzicatos and soft woodwind tones seemed to emanate from the piano.
The Beethoven concertos are complex, multitiered constructions, in which the piano and the orchestra often head toward the same destination along separate paths: sonata and symphony are superimposed. Although Lupu was sometimes in danger of floating away into his own private pianosphere, he periodically called upon his old competition-winner style to produce a burly, quasi-orchestral sound. The transition from the slow movement of the “Emperor” Concerto to the finale was as electric as I’ve ever heard it: a meditative murmur of pedalled tones—“holy, distant, and celestial” again—gave way to a blunt oration of accented chords. The two sides of Beethoven’s personality achieved perfect balance: as if with a gunshot, the poet became a hero.
If Lupu resembles a venerable underground artist, Piotr Anderszewski, a Polish-Hungaria pianist who has risen to prominence in the past few years, looks like a hip young thing in an Antonioni movie. At his recent recital at Zankel Hall, Anderszewski walked onstage wearing Beatles bangs, a loose black jacket, and leather pants. He is thirty-five, and he’s a serious, searching musician. If Lupu saunters through the music as if on a forest walk, Anderszewski whips around every corner like a spy Balancing out his edgy flair is a gift for pure cantabile playing, nearly at the Lupu level.
The first musical impression is of a forceful, steely personality. In the opening movement of Bach’s “French Overture,” the sound bordered on the harsh. Possibly, Anderszewski miscalculated the acoustics of Zankel, which can give a tinny ring to fortissimos. There was more than a bit of Glenn Gould in the accenting of inner voices, in the highlighting of each line of counterpoint. This was proper in Bach, but peculiar in the first movement of the Chopin Third Sonata, which is something other than a fugue. Too many young pianists these days feel compelled to defamiliarize, interrogate, and otherwise discombobulate music of the Romantic repertory, as if the ghost of Stravinsky were admonishing them not to get too sentimental. I had heard the German pianist Lars Vogt operate in icy fashion on the Grieg Concerto the previous month. Anderszewski seemed on the verge of doing the same to Chopin. But, fortunately, he had more up his sleeve.
The great Largo of the Third Sonata encapsulated the narrative power of Anderszewski’s playing. At first, an odd stress on accompanying chords in the left hand threatened to enervate the right-hand theme. Then, in the trio, anxiety gave way to grace, as if the pianist had finally found his way inside the music. The tone turned liquid, an arpeggio became an aria, and time stopped. Anderszewski succeeded in sustaining momentum at a daringly slow tempo—the kind of effect that Sviatoslav Richter made his specialty. When the first theme returned, the urge to deconstruct had been exorcised, and the lyric spell was unbroken to the end.
Anderszewski is one of several younger pianists that Carnegie Hall is showcasing in Zankel this season. Till Fellner, who made a lucid and songful recording of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” for the ECM label, played recital in December, and, if he seemed temperamentally ill-suited to the grandiose Liszt B-Minor Sonata, he was thoroughly at home in Bach’s Fifth French Suite. Jonathan Biss appears at Zankel on March 8th. He is a formidable musician who exerts a subtle intellectual pressure on seemingly straight-ahead readings of the classical and Romantic repertory. Paul Lewis, Alessio Bax, and the composer-pianists Fazil Say and Lera Auerbach are others who might thrive in Zankel’s music-of-the-future atmosphere.
Even with Zankel in the mix, it’s no easier to get to Carnegie Hall. Hundreds of gifted pianists emerge from conservatories each year, and the major concert venues cannot accommodate them all. The more resourceful players are discovering that entrepreneurship is no artistic sin. Daniel Beliavsky, a doctoral student at N.Y.U., has begun making recordings for the Internet-based label Sonatabop. He favors sumptuous textures and swaying tempos, harking back to the Russian tradition: his heavy rubato in the Schubert Impromptus probably made his teachers blanch. Indeed, on bonus tracks to his CDs, Beliavsky carries on amusing dialogues with an austere pedagogue named Ulysses Kidgi, who preaches “anonymous perfection.” Kidgi is a figment of Beliavsky’s imagination, but his pedantry is all too true to life. Beliavsky is also a composer, and the première performance of his piece “The Animals Race!” will take place on March 9th, at Merkin Hall.
Soheil Nasseri, a native of Santa Monica, California, has garnered a few enthusiastic reviews, as well as a story chronicling his adventures in downtown night life. (A classical guy who hangs out with hip-hop promoters—freaky!) But he can’t attract attention at the big agencies that dominate the touring circuit. In the fall, he rented Alice Tully Hall to play five Beethoven sonatas; passing moments of insecurity were offset by warm, elegant, unaffected musicianship. To fill his days, Nasseri has been immersing himself in an ambitious music-education project, playing Beethoven sonatas in schools all over the city. He may lack the big recital dates, but he has what other pianists only dream of: fresh-faced, fascinated audiences almost every day of the week.