London appearances of Radu Lupu are rare enough to make them major events in the musical calendar. His Royal Festival Hall concerto date with the Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Paavo Järvi was predictably a sell-out. The revered Romanian pianist may have aged since I last saw him about 17 years ago, losing something of that firebrand Rasputin look, but there’s no sense that he’s mellowed. He still defies good comportment by slumping back in his chair as he plays (no traditional piano stool for him) and only rarely gives anything away visually thanks to his almost perpetual stony face of concentration – in this performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, he did once allow himself a little sly smirk as he capped off a cadential phrase with a perky staccato, and also gestured a smile of sympathy towards the orchestra after a momentary fluff from the woodwind.

Radu Lupu © Priska Ketterer
Radu Lupu
© Priska Ketterer

This intensity, and the insight of the musical results, made the performance a memorable one. No. 4 is, indeed, the least showy of Beethoven’s concertos, but Lupu and Järvi emphasised its conversational qualities, the pianist introducing the opening theme as if a gentle, convivial challenge to see what the orchestra could do with it. With any other pianist, his approach could have come across as sleepy, even introverted, but Lupu’s great skill is in drawing the listener’s ear into the heart of the music, a place where mere notes on the page become expression and where despite the limpid clarity, the delicacy even, there’s a steel core to the trajectory of the lines. His playing here was never forceful, but always sought out fresh ways of conveying familiar sequences of notes without distorting the musical intent, for instance in the way he gave added weight to some of his left-hand textures in the first movement.

The Philharmonia responded to Lupu’s exploratory approach with playing that had more Mozartian charm than we usually hear in mid-period Beethoven, something that also characterised its opening performance of the composer’s Coriolan Overture, an account that could perhaps have benefited from revealing more of Beethoven’s rougher edges. The overture’s dramatic pauses – somewhat over-emphasised by Järvi – had unfortunately been filled almost without exception by ill-timed coughing, but Lupu’s mesmerising pianism in the concerto miraculously managed to silence the winter colds, and his encore of Brahms’s E flat major Intermezzo from his Op.117 set was played with such captivating, lullaby-like fragility, that it seemed to leave the whole audience holding its breath.

There was nothing particularly unemotional about the music in this first part of the concert, but it was nonetheless a welcome move to pair it with a second half that unashamedly wore its heart on its sleeve, a performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. From the start, Järvi presented the symphony as a living, breathing edifice, adding plenty of rubato to the composer’s already febrile writing, and pulling the tempo around just a little too indulgently at times. Yet one could not dismiss the force and energy of the results. The scherzo was full of fire and devilish mischief, while the Adagio, introduced by Mark van de Wiel’s beautifully judged clarinet solo, and indeed the festive finale, each built up to searing and overwhelming climaxes in which we could bask in the sheer richness of the Philharmonia’s trademark sound.