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Radu Lupu and CSO pair in rapturous “Emperor Concerto”

Great artists with long careers tend to share one important trait, and the Romanian-born pianist Radu Lupu – who joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Riccardo Muti Thursday night for a transcendent performance of Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No 5 in E-flat Major (Emperor)” – possesses it in spades.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Highly recommended
When: April 28 and 29 at 8 p.m.
Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan
Tickets: $40-$270
Info: (312) 294-3000;
http://www.cso.org

Maestro Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus in Liszt’s “A Symphony to Dante’s Divine Comedy.” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

That trait might best be described as “the simplicity that comes with time.” It is not an easy quality to describe, but it has something to do with tapping into the very essence of a work by paring away every excess, while at the same time not shedding an iota of the brilliant technical prowess required to carry it off. It also has something to do with the way life experience informs interpretation, whether consciously or subconsciously.

As elusive as all this might be, you know it when you hear it. And it was palpable from the very first moment Lupu (seated in his customary office chair as opposed to a traditional piano bench) brought the most delicate singing tone to his opening notes of the “Emperor,” Beethoven’s final piano concerto.

Tapping into both the singing sweetness and optimism of the first movement, his fingers rippled over the keys with such feathery delicacy that it was difficult to know how he made the piano hammers move. The sound produced was like seeing electrons dance. And throughout the work, Lupu effortlessly captured the split-second shifts of mood so characteristic of Beethoven (a composer violinist Itzhak Perlman recently described as being able to move from deep seriousness to almost childlike playfulness in the blink of an eye).

Lupu’s often quiet but brilliantly expressive articulation compels listening by means of understatement, and yet there is an undeniable grandeur about it. And in tandem with the orchestra, he and the orchestra brought a dreamy tranquility to the slow passages of this familiar work that was metabolism-altering. The pianist’s emotional connection and eye contact with both Muti and the CSO musicians was both visible and audible at every moment.

The program’s second half was devoted to Franz Liszt’s expansive “Symphony to Dante’s Divine Comedy,” first performed in 1857, and inspired by the foundational Italian poet’s tale of his spiritual journey to God as he moves from Hell, to Purgatory, and finally to Paradise (or Heaven).

Although there is a ponderous quality to much of this piece, and often a lack of cohesive dramatic fire to match the thrill of Dante’s vivid descriptions – it is a fine showcase for many sections of the orchestra, with interesting bowing by the strings, exquisite playing by the woodwinds and brass, beautiful riffs by two harpists and a mix of percussion.

The payoff in this 52-minute piece comes in the final Magnificat section, as the truly heavenly voices of the women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus (80 or so strong, seated in the onstage balcony section) bring full glory to the Hosannas and Hallelujahs.

I would save most of my Hallelujahs for Lupu’s playing of the Beethoven.

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