The Romanian pianist Radu Lupu, who has died at the age of 76, shot to prominence in the UK when he won the Leeds Piano Competition in 1969, giving an acclaimed Wigmore Hall recital in November of the same year. In fact the Leeds was the third of a series of international piano competitions he won – the others being the Van Cliburn (1966) and the George Enescu International (1967) – though he had remained a student at the Moscow Conservatoire until 1969. It was immediately obvious that a truly exceptional talent had arrived on the scene.
The following year he made the first of his recordings for Decca: solo works by Schubert and Brahms. By now he was firmly established as one of the major pianists of his time, a reputation he was to consolidate as the years went by. What struck listeners from the start was the almost mystical quality of his playing, which was searching, poetic and profoundly responsive to the inner life of the music that seemed to unfold organically as he played.
The velvety tone, captured well in the Decca recordings, lent his readings an exquisite refinement, with an attention to detail so precise as to make the listener marvel at the freshness of inspiration. Within a generally narrow dynamic spectrum (from piano to mezzo forte) he could produce an extraordinary range of tonalcolouring, allowing a final cadential flourish to make all the more impact. He could occasionally sound more clangorous in climactic passages; for example, cadenzas of concertos.
The straight-backed chair Lupu adopted in preference to a conventional piano stool resulted in a less performative posture than usual, enhancing the impression of musician and instrument as a single entity. A complete lack of exhibitionism or flamboyance, together with a total technical command, emphasised the sense of effortlessness and inevitability in his playing. His hirsute physical appearance, somewhat grizzled in later years, evoked that of an anchorite – perhaps St Jerome in the wilderness – in communion with the eternal verities. And indeed he was notoriously reclusive, shunning interviews and even the concert platform – his public performances became collector’s items.
Notwithstanding the acclaimed Decca series, he disliked recording: not only because of his self-confessed “microphone fright”, but because his concern for the structural integrity of creative inspiration rendered the editing process anathema to him.
Lupu once divulged that his peerless tone control came not from his hands, but from his head – or rather his inner ear. “All you have to work for is to match that sound on the instrument. The whole balance, the line, the tone, is perceived and controlled by the head.”
The repertoire in which he specialised, particularly as far as his recordings were concerned, revolved around the Viennese classics (Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert), plus Brahms and Schumann, though he also played Debussy, Liszt, Franck, Bartók, Enescu and Janáček.
With orchestra he recorded the complete cycle of Beethoven concertos (with the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta), but only the first of the two Brahms concertos (LPO/Edo de Waart) and those of Grieg and Schumann (LSO/Previn), together with a pair of Mozart concertos, K414 and K467 (English Chamber Orchestra/Uri Segal). He recorded Mozart violin sonatas with Szymon Goldberg, the Debussy and Franck violin sonatas with Kyung Wha Chung, and an album of Mozart and Schubert four-hand piano music with Murray Perahia (the latter on CBS Masterworks). Frustrating as it is to have so many gaps in his recorded legacy – especially given his too infrequent concert appearances – the value of what has been preserved, mostly in a 28-disc set released by Decca in 2015, could be said to be all the greater.
Born in Galaţi, Romania, he was the only child of Meyer Lupu, a lawyer, and Ana (nee Gabor), a teacher of French. He had his first piano lessons at the age of six and made his public debut six years later with a complete programme of his own music. He continued his studies with Florica Musicescu and Cella Delavrancea, winning a scholarship in 1961 to the Moscow Conservatoire where his teachers included Heinrich and Stanislav Neuhaus. He once described himself as essentially an autodidact, though he acknowledged the influence of the Polish-American pianist Mieczysław Horszowski on his playing.
In 1975, he gave the premiere of André Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto (written for him) at the Royal Festival Hall in London with the Royal Philharmonic under Segal. In the same year he made his debut with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and in 1978 with the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan at the Salzburg festival. Thereafter he played with many leading conductors all over the world.
His last London concert was in February 2019, when he played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Paavo Järvi. Although the concert had not been announced as his last – he formally retired from the concert stage at the end of that season – there was an unmistakably valedictory hue to his playing of an encore by Brahms (the first of the Op 117 Intermezzi), that even by Lupu’s standards had an uncommonly rapt, timeless quality imbued with ineffable sadness.
Few executants have been so effusively praised by their colleagues. Among the many celebrated artists who cite Lupu as a formative influence on their own music-making are Daniel Barenboim, Mitsuko Uchida, Stephen Hough and Steven Isserlis.