Radu Lupu 30. November 1945 – 17. April 2022
In a previous life, somewhere around 1977, I was brought to Decca, where for the next two years or so, I was the assistant producer on a number of opera recordings. The first was in Munich with Ferdinand Paër’s Leonora, followed by Solti’s recordings of Marriage of Figero and Don Giovanni. I sat in on numerous recording sessions produced by colleagues and fetched teas, coffees and ordered taxis. Around 1980, I was entrusted with my first recording as producer: Radu Lupu and Schubert. It was an insane idea from the Great-and-Good of Decca who obviously wanted me to sink or swim. Thinking back to these sessions in Kingsway Hall in Central London, I wonder how I didn’t sink.
I had studied piano in Vienna’s Music Academy and latterly at the Conservatory and my head was full of the specifically piano-esque. It had been an education that believed teaching fingers to play the piano was all that was necessary. The piano teachers were fairly poor at teaching music. If they had been better, it would have become obvious that the fingers would follow. I only had myself to blame since I had allowed myself to go down that particular rabbit hole. I also only had myself to blame for letting everyone at Decca know that of all the Decca pianists, Lupu was the one I most admired. Unknown to me, nobody else at Decca wanted to work with him. He was notoriously difficult, neurotic, insecure and in a constant state of frustration. In my ignorance, I only believed my job to be spotting fluffed notes, marking them in the score and doing a retake. Fluffed notes were the least of Lupu’s concerns. They usually began with the piano and the Steinway technician filing down or administering a special liquid to hammers in order to equalise tone, brightness, dullness of each key. Lupu would play something and then ask, “is the F# too bright? I’ll play it again!” The technician would go back into the studio and spend the next 30 minutes with the guts of the piano on his lap.
As someone interested in the piano-esque part of piano playing, I was fascinated by his passage work – perfectly even and articulated while at the same time gliding from pitch to pitch like a singer. How he did it was his secret. (“You like good articulation? Listen to Perahia!”) Murray Perahia was Lupu’s secret rival, though one whom Lupu admired more than others. His only other comment to me regarding other pianists was András Schiff – “the only young one of any interest” he once stated dryly. I then worked with Schiff and pushed for Decca to sign him, which it did and we went on to record Bach and Mozart together. But there was a difference. There was something narcissistic about Schiff’s playing and his interpretative ideas. Lupu was anything but a narcissist. Lupu had a total command of structure and though he was constantly fretting about it, an astonishing technical command of the instrument. But it was this sense of architecture that made him different and explained why he hated recording. A performance is a narrative. It has a beginning, a middle and an end and Lupu’s attraction to composers like Schubert and Beethoven was because these were particularly challenging narratives to construct. He was not able to replace a fluffed note from another take, if the mood wasn’t there or if there was a microscopic difference in the dynamic. What he heard and what he sensed were often in contradiction. 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 as “a wrong note”.
Despite my inability to communicate with Lupu on anything like the level he deserved musically, we ended up making a respectable number of recordings together: there was more Schubert; Mozart and Beethoven Chamber works in Amsterdam; Brahms in Hamburg (the F minor Sonata more or less recorded in a single take). I didn’t produce his final recording for Decca – Schubert’s B-flat Op. Posthumous. Nor was I allowed to produce the Beethoven piano concertos (still too junior). His collaboration with Kyung wha-Chung nearly finished off my senior colleague Christopher Raeburn. In fact, no recording of Lupu’s came out until contractually, all options of further hold-ups had expired.
He hated recording for the reasons I outlined: he was a builder of coherent musical narratives. He was a stickler for dynamic cohesion and he was also a child of his time. By that I mean he regarded the recording studio as ostensibly being a place where the definitive version of a work was immortalised. In the 1970s and ’80s, that was often in conflict with recording his interpretation of a work. Poetic turns; hesitations on the upbeat; rubato…all of these things were mercilessly purged from recordings. I heard them in the studio and wept as he insisted on their removal. “No!” he would state: “That sounds to Brendelian!” Or even worse, “No! That sounds too Jewish!” Once he sulked because he had heard that Richter had said he played like a girl. Lupu was not an easy genius to work with.
The stories of Lupu being sick on recording sessions are true. It wasn’t pleasant and he had an unhappy relationship with his father who was never satisfied and always seemed to be terrorizing him on the phone. I lived in Chiswick for several years – a western Suburb of London – and ended up living near Lupu. His then German girlfriend would often drop by. As a result, I got to know him a little bit outside of the studio as well. I moved from Chiswick, then moved to Sony and by the time I had returned to Decca, he was driving my colleague Christopher Raeburn to despair. We didn’t make another recordings after that. He refused to go back into the studio and the last time I saw him was on a street in Chicago more than twenty years ago. He invited me to his concert that evening where he played the Liszt Sonata. It was a bit of a mess – but that was only because of fluffed notes. His construction of the work was astonishing and this sprawling stream of virtuoso consciousness became a narrative arch, almost as if Lupu was composing it, in “real time” on stage. I know it sounds feeble, but the fluffed notes never mattered.
These photos were taken when Lupu, my late colleague Peter Wadland and the pianist Noemy Belinkaya travelled to Aldeburgh to hear Mieczysław Horszowski on June 13. 1983. It looks like I was mostly the photographer, so I’m only in one of the shots. I’m guessing that I must now be the last person alive to have worked with Lupu as recording producer. His recordings were nearly always sensationally well received, yet having heard the takes he rejected, I can only recommend that if you can find live recordings, that’s where you will hear the authentic Lupu.