A Week of Heavy Loss: Honoring the passing three musical legends

Tim Farrand
Radu Lupu Decca / Mary Robert

Radu Lupu

It was in the car after the end of a long semester that I encountered the artistry of pianist Radu Lupu.

As semesters would come to an end, the pressure of juries, examinations, and papers would feel nearly unbearable. In that final week, every day would carry me one step closer to freedom. Once this pressure was released I always let my curiosity run wild after such intense periods of focused concentration. It was during these times that I discovered Frederick Delius, the composer that has stayed at the center of my research and creative life since, as well as areas of exploration in philosophy (Nietzsche, Eastern Studies, David Hume), DIY (getting lost in the fascination of Adam Savage's YouTube channel), bread baking (sourdough bread galore), and many other seemingly divergent pursuits.

After one particularly stressful semester, I put on a recording of Radu Lupu playing one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's piano concertos to ease the stress while learning more about this pianist I had heard such high praise about.

I was transfixed. His playing had a level of control that imbued each phase with character, nuance, and expression. Every bit of tension melted away as he brought me to a place approaching the otherworldly. Giving oneself to the care of Radu Lupu is to transcend the purely human level and enter into the realm of the gods. Everything was so crystal clear yet never without a profound sense of humanity. Lupu draws out the utmost feeling from each note with his smoothness of tone that remains unmistakable.

His musicianship opens the door to the realm of art, beauty, and intimate feeling. Indulge yourself in his recording of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major:

Lupu's acute sensitivity to detail, tone, and expression was a perfect match for the music of Mozart and Schubert. Listen to this rare live recording of Franz Schubert's 4 Impromptus D. 935 from 2012:

An indispensable recording of Schubert is Lupu's interpretation of the Piano Sonata in A minor, D.784 recorded live in 1974. But he is not limited to Mozart and Schubert. His recordings were few but each one was a lovingly prepared masterpiece. Some of my favorites are his recordings of the Grieg Piano Concerto, the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Schumann's Davidsbundlertanze, and the many Mozart Piano Concerti he recorded.

Beyond the solo and concerto repertoire Lupu made wonderful recordings of piano duos with the pianists Murray Perahia. Here is a recording of my favorite 4 hand piano work, Schubert's F Minor Fantasia:

Here is a live recording of a full recital he gave in 2017 in Bologna. Spend an evening with a master:

Nicholas Angelich

Nicholas Angelich

The pianist Nicholas Angelich was remembered by cellist Gautier Capuçon as "a poet, so gentle and sensitive" and Gautier's brother, the famed violinist Renaud Capuçon, writes:

Like your sound, you were bright and tender at the same time.
You were an extraordinary pianist, a sensitive, loyal, generous friend.
Your brutal departure leaves us a great void.
I will never play a Brahms note again without being around you.

Admired as both a marvelous soloist and thoughtful chamber musician, Nicholas Angelich was beloved for his sensitivity as well as his powerful immersion into any musical landscape.

Listen to the connection between Renaud Capuçon and Angelich in the uplifting, intimate, and deeply moving first movement of the G Major Violin Sonata by Johannes Brahms:

Angelich plays with such lightness yet maintains a musical depth that captures every curve of the musical landscape. In his Brahms recordings with Renaud Capuçon, he expertly molds his sound into that of the violin creating an initmate dialogue. A rare talent for pianists.

Angelich's poetry can be deeply felt in his beautiful interpretation of Träumerei (Dreaming) from Robert Schumann's Kinderszenen:

His sensitivity and poetic spirit are combined with incredible power in his live recording of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with Paavo Järvi:

Admired by the great Martha Argerich, the two create a mesmerizing rendition of La Valse, Maurice Ravel having been composer close to the heart of Angelich:

Sir Harrison Birtwistle

Harrison Birtwistle

Harrison Birtwistle was one "of the true giants of modernism" as stated by the conductor Susanna Mälkki in her remembrance of the composer of such "powerful and uncompromising music" yet being "such a sweet and fun person."

His humor can be immediately felt in the following interview with Julian Anderson. Birtwistle, in speaking of his compositional process, says that there isn't a note that he has written that he couldn't improve if he gave it a little more thought. He states, "I have amazing ideas and if I could realize [some percentage of them] I would be the greatest composer who ever lived":

The above witticism was made in the context of speaking about the influence of Cubism on Birtwistle's compositional approach, especially when thinking of a piece like Earth Dances (1986) which is a series of cubes that, as the composer explains, don't resolve but rather rotate around each other. He speaks of these cubes as being almost like bridge passages between one point that would traditionally lead to the next arrival yet they never arrive in his works. Instead, there is one bridge passage after another, surveying the musical landscape.

In tonal music, one has an exposition or introduction of material followed by some type of development that finally leads to a resolution or arrival. For Birtwistle, his works are in a "constant state of exposition" with no development of ideas and certainly no points of resolution. Instead of a linear progression, one gets a circular exploration of an interesting idea observed from all different points of view. The immensely powerful and equally difficult to perform (at 100 individual parts), Earth Dances is considered by some to be the consummation of many of the musical tropes Birtwistle had built up by this point in his career:

Birtwistle's wit is again on display in an interview about his Violin Concerto (2011) where he describes the starkly honest frustration of coming up with a great idea and then "having to write the damn thing":

Here is a performance of the Violin concerto performed by Christian Tetzlaff for whom the work was written:

Here is a lovely portrait of the composer at home:

The Triumph of Time (1971) has been regarded as "flawless" and "one of the most important orchestral scores to have been composed by an Englishman" in the 1970s. The Universal Edition overview of the work gives the following description:

The Triumph of Time is based on an allegorical painting by the sixteenth-century Flemish artist, Pieter Bruegel. Bruegel’s picture shows the figure of Time riding in a cart surrounded by marauding bands of skeletons. The landscape is ravaged and the canvas is covered with manifold images of death. Birtwistle transfers these images to the present. We are invited to watch a slow funeral cortege as it passes us by. As spectators and listeners we are involved and yet uninvolved with the action at one and the same moment. Time is the inescapable mode of our existence and death our ultimate destination: thus we are involved. But there are moments when we can remove ourselves from the inevitability of time, moments when we can stand back from ourselves, moments when we can observe events with passive objectivity. The funeral cortege may be symbolic and activate our empathy or horror, but it may also be an event moving towards us and past us at a speed which allows us to contemplate only the gradual metamorphoses of visual planes. In other words, we are the observers of an event in slow motion.

Perhaps the best way to end this week of loss is with Radu Lupu's recording of the Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2 by Johannes Brahms:

Cover photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash
April 20, 2022

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