At 71, Radu Lupu continues to amaze. No one gets so much out of a piano with such a light touch and minimum of effort. He sits in his ergonomic office chair, outwardly impassive, his hands remaining level to the keyboard. They do all the work; the rest of his body radiates profound repose and stillness. He doesn’t play, rather he is a conduit; he channels the music. Notes aren’t struck; they float up out of the silence round and translucent, with an Indian Summer glow. They rarely swell to a forte and occasionally fade to the brink of inaudibility. They enthrall. Lupu casts a spell; you are helpless to resist.

Andris Nelsons and Radu Lupu with the Boston Symphony © Hilary Scott
Andris Nelsons and Radu Lupu with the Boston Symphony
© Hilary Scott

In Mozart’s dark and moody Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor, Lupu was the eye of the hurricane, contrasting the orchestra’s stormy turbulence in the Allegro, subdued and subtle in the more tranquil Larghetto, and making the variations on the somber, sinister march theme of the Allegretto a haunting contrast of emotions. Lupu performed his own cadenzas, respecting Mozart’s wish that the cadenza of the first movement end without the usual trill. The orchestra here is the largest ever called for in one of Mozart’s concertos with a substantial wind section setting the overall timbre and dominating parts of all three movements. Andris Nelsons made sure the woodwinds set the palette and echoed his soloist with an equally finespun and tempered performance.

When approached for this program, Lupu suggested Mozart’s Requiem as a companion piece. Nelsons opted for Süssmayr’s completion and carried over the same low-key approach from the concerto. It is almost impossible to hide the seams when this version of the Requiem is played outside a liturgical setting. The piece actually holds together better spaced out over the course of a mass, as the BSO did for the 1964 Solemn Pontifical Requiem Mass in Memory of John F. Kennedy. In the concert hall, the Requiem can seem more episodic, with the episodes’ decline in quality more marked as the ratio of Mozart to Süssmayr decreases. Nelsons mostly avoided this pitfall by emphasizing the drama unique to each particular section without italicizing emotions and keeping things moving.

Soloists Lucy Crowe, Tamara Mumford, Ben Johnson and Morris Robinson with the Boston Symphony © Hilary Scott
Soloists Lucy Crowe, Tamara Mumford, Ben Johnson and Morris Robinson with the Boston Symphony
© Hilary Scott

As with February’s Bach Mass in B minor, Nelsons used a small orchestra, but a large chorus, this time prepared by guest conductor, James Bagwell. Despite the presence of a quartet of soloists, the chorus is the voice of the Requiem. It prays, it pleads, it laments, mourns, and rejoices. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus filled the hall with a rich blend of sound tailored to the drama of the moment and  particularly excelled in the fugues scattered throughout the sections. Since the soloists only rarely and briefly sing alone, how well they blend together as a quartet is paramount. This group blended exceptionally well. Lucy Crowe’s soprano has a robust, smoky quality in her lower range which brightens as it rises, a beguiling quality which complemented the arresting, mahogany of Tamara Mumford’s voice, its timbre so unique it left listeners regretting Mozart hadn’t written more for the mezzo .Tenor Ben Johnson sang clearly and accurately but was slightly underpowered compared to his colleagues. The imposing Morris Robinson could well bill himself as the “Shaquille O’Neal of Basses” he looks so much like the star basketball player. His resonant, coppery voice is equal to his stature; he could easily overpower everyone, as his Tuba mirum solo demonstrated, but has firm control of dynamics. He warmed up and stayed that way by doing something never seen before-  singing along sotto voce with the male members of the chorus when not otherwise engaged.

Perhaps the next time the BSO programs the Requiem they can try one of the versions which cleans up Süssmayr’s solecisms and meshes his orchestration more closely to Mozart’s. It would be intriguing to hear whether such an edition allows the piece to coalesce much more than is possible otherwise.