Pianist Benedetto Lupo made his Vancouver recital debut yesterday (he had previously appeared with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra) in a daring programme of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. I say daring because even though both composers are often audience’s favourites, the works Mr. Lupo programmed could hardly have qualified as crowd pleasers.
Towards the end of his life, Johannes Brahms wrote four sets of short piano pieces. For me, these pieces are really a distillation and culmination of Brahms‘s entire career as a composer. For me, these are some of the most intimate pieces of music Brahms ever wrote, and even a great Brahms pianist like Arthur Rubinstein, who made beautiful recordings of this music, avoided playing them in recitals. Benedetto Lupo certainly set himself a challenge when he programmed both the three pieces in Op. 117 and the seven pieces in Op. 116 in the first half of his recital programme.
On top of the varying technical challenges in each of the pieces, there is, in the piano music of Brahms, a fine balance between the horizontal and the vertical aspects of the music. In addition to moving the music forward, the artist must bring clarity to the multi-layered texture of the score. As conductor and pianist André Previn said, there is, in Brahms, always a beautiful melody struggling to get out.
Lupo lavished each of these pieces with a beautiful sound at the piano, and exhibited a fine sense of direction in the music. He managed to highlight the many layers within the music, while never making the music sound heavy or lacking in forward motion. The near-capacity audience rewarded the pianist with the greatest gift a musician could ask for – silence.
I was very grateful for Benedetto Lupo, both for programming Tchaikovsky’s Grand Piano Sonata in G Major, Op. 37, and for speaking to the audience before the performance. While I know of the work’s existence, as well as of recordings by pianists such as Richter, I was hearing the work for the first time yesterday. Lupo pointed out that the sonata was written at about the same time as the composer’s fourth symphony, and therefore the element of fate plays a large part in both works, thus, in the pianist’s own words, the “obsessiveness” in many of the themes. He also shared with the audience the observation that the beautiful second subject in the first movement is actually based on the Dies Irae, from the Catholic Latin Mass for the Dead.
From the march-like first subject in the first movement, to the ferociously difficult final movement, the sonata could not have found a greater champion than Lupo. Under the wrong hands, this work can sound like repetitive and meandering. The young pianist played the entire work with an incredible sense of purpose and unity, and with an utter neglect for the fearsome pianistic challenges lay down by the composer. Under his hands, the logic as well as originality of this unfamiliar (to me) work by a very familiar composer became quite apparent.
In this already crowded field of outstanding pianists, Benedetto Lupo is an artist that has much to offer, and one that I would love to hear again. Lupo’s programme reminded me once again the vastness of the piano literature, and that there are still relatively unknown masterpieces in the pianistic canon waiting for both artists and audience to discover.