Remembering a lesson with the great Radu Lupu

19th April 2022 | Concerts, Inspirations, Teaching | 2 comments

Very sad news today that the great pianist Radu Lupu has died. He was probably the first ‘favourite pianist’ I chose for myself rather than taking my teachers’ choices on trust.

I tweeted something about having once had a couple of lessons with Radu Lupu when he was living in London. In response, American pianist Julio Elizalde suggested I could write something about that experience. In 2016 I wrote a bit about it in my book Speaking the Piano , so here for a start is that section of the chapter again. If it is of interest, I could write a bit more.

‘When I was a a young professional I once had a couple of lessons with the wonderful Romanian pianist Radu Lupu. During the lessons, he demonstrated how he felt certain passages should go. It was delightful to be so near him while he played and I observed him closely. After one of those lessons, my flatmates asked me what he had told me. To amuse them, I sat down at the piano and imitated Radu’s style of playing those passages, imitating (as best I could) his sense of timing, his way of driving through a passage, his dramatic shifts of dynamic, his way of leaning back against the back of the chair, even his stern expression. My friends were entranced – disturbingly entranced. ‘Go on!’ they implored. ‘That’s great!’

‘I felt a bit chagrined. Was my imitation of Radu Lupu so much better than my own playing? If so, should I carry on playing ‘like him’? I didn’t know what to think. Obviously my piano playing did not magically improve at the moment I decided to imitate Radu. I still had my own sound, which my flatmates heard every day when I practised, and seemed to take in their stride. Why were they suddenly so impressed? It had to be to do with body language and projection of some kind of aura. I realised that perhaps when I tried to ‘be Radu Lupu’ I was copying the outward signs of absolute self-belief and confidence in my right to hold an audience’s attention, and my friends were subconsciously responding to that.

‘Displaying the outward signs was not, however, the same as feeling them inwardly. At that stage of my development I was still trying to find my voice and build my confidence. When I was on the concert platform I probably looked as if I was pleading with the audience to like me. Radu Lupu didn’t look like that at all: his aura was magisterial. It seemed that I could imitate it, at least for the purposes of a demonstration. But I knew that to continue imitating Radu Lupu would be sterile, doomed to be nothing more than a tribute act. Perhaps I could try to incorporate his body language into my own platform manner? But I felt that would be a purely cosmetic change and easily identifiable as such. Instead, I tried to divine what the underlying principles of Radu’s playing were. That was a better decision which made it possible to digest what I had learned from him and to apply the principles elsewhere in my own way.

‘Of course one could say that playing like your hero might be possible for a few seconds, but would be impossible to sustain for a few minutes or hours. In reality your hero has unusual reserves of stamina and nerve, accumulated over thousands of hours of practice, which guarantee a high level of playing at all times and not only when adrenalin buoys them up for the length of an amusing demonstration. A brief and vivid effort of imagination by a student, however, can work wonders, especially in a playful context which prevents them from being too cerebral about what they’re accomplishing.’

from Speaking the Piano: Reflections on Learning and Teaching (Boydell Press, 2016), p.19-20

2 Comments

  1. Michael Coe

    More please!

    Reply
  2. Archie McLellan

    Thanks Susan, that was a fascinating read. Imitating someone is often comical. What happened in your case was amazing. So, heading back to your opening, I AM interested, and would be very glad to read more.

    Reply

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