Radu Lupu, Norden Farm Centre, Maidenhead

Once more with feeling
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The Independent Culture

The last time Radu Lupu gave a solo piano recital in London was in May 1995. He has always seemed a reluctant performer and has no plans to expose himself to the limelight of the capital in the near future, nor to add to his distinguished discography. Lupu is one of the "great" pianists of our time in some of the greatest music of all time. To Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms he brings a depth and seriousness, a sense of infinity, that makes other pianists – even some fine ones – seem shallow and inexperienced by comparison.

So it was with Beethoven's modest Op 90 Sonata, in just two movements, which is new to Lupu's repertoire. In his recital last Friday, you would have thought that he had been playing it all his life, so vast was his range of expression in the first movement, taking Beethoven's instruction, "mit Empfindung und Ausdruck" ("with feeling and expression"), as far as he could, which was immeasurably farther than I had ever dreamt.

Did I say modest? Lupu demonstrated how this music has the speculative quality of late Beethoven – it was, after all, written only two years before Op 101, the first of the monumental last five sonatas. Behind its apparently casual air and simple language, which suggest that Beethoven no longer felt the need to prove himself by that stage, is an intensity that is balanced by the flowing, singing character of the second movement.

Here, Lupu settled for an amble, which didn't help him to float a singing line. Yet pianists speak highly both of the piano and the acoustic of the small Courtyard Theatre, at the Norden Farm Centre, which seats just 250 people. It was certainly clear (unlike Lupu's slightly lazy articulation of accompanying figures) but it was also cold and dry, and with extremely light pedalling, the piano sound didn't resonate.

But then, Lupu has always been one to tease out the innards of the music: the obvious is still there but not given priority. With that in mind, I wondered if he were the most persuasive advocate of an unfamiliar work such as Enescu's First Sonata. Written in the early 1920s, a decade before his Sonata in D, it's a very different work: tragic, romantic in a darkly introspective way and formally quite unexpected, since it ends with a slow movement. Lupu may have played the sonata wonderfully, but I felt lost in its crepuscular mysteries.

Which may have been the appropriate response, because it was certainly the darkest imaginable shades that Lupu brought out in Schubert's C minor Sonata. For all its formal grandeur, the music is riven with strife, and Lupu didn't stint on outbursts of violence, which seemed all the more frightening for erupting out of a pervasive sense of containment. Far from being a gay tarantella, the finale became a dance of death, on the brink of danger, though if that sounds melodramatic or hysterical, it was far more serious than that.

Perhaps the slow second movement wasn't as sheerly lovely or cantabile as some pianists can make it, but the sense of orchestral colouring was endless. The tiny pauses between the movements were an integral part of one immense span of concentration.