“I found even the most basic principles of piano technique very difficult,” he confessed to The Monitor, “because it required great self-discipline, and having thought for years that I would one day become a composer, I had always felt that this kind of perfection would not be necessary.”
Still, in 1965, Mr. Lupu finished fifth at the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna, before taking home victory at the Cliburn Finals in Fort Worth the following year. “I don’t like competition at all,” he told the press at the time; he nevertheless shared first prize at the George Enescu International Competition in Bucharest in 1967 and triumphed at the Leeds International Piano Competition in England in 1969.
Fanny Waterman, the founder of Leeds, recalls that Mr Lupu invited the jury to tell him which of the Beethoven concertos to play; they refused, and he won with the first part of the third. He recorded that Beethoven with Lawrence Foster and the London Symphony Orchestra in 1970 – a prelude to his later complete survey of the five concertos with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic.
Despite such successes, he already struck listeners as anything but a standard product of the competition circuit. “He differs somewhat from the winner of the regulation competition in that he is not primarily a brilliant and impeccable technician,” wrote Raymond Ericson in The Times of Mr. Lupu’s Carnegie Hall debut in April 1967. Harold Schonberg, also in The Times, thought the Brahms First Concerto, with which Mr. Lupu returned to the venue in 1972, “deliberate, episodic, and mannered,” but allowed it to at the very least” had the merit of not being stamped out of the same old cookie cutter’.
Mr Lupu, who retired in 2019, made few recordings for a pianist of his stature; he admitted being tense in the presence of studio and even radio microphones. A boxed set of his solo releases on Decca adds up to just 10 discs, the last from the mid-1990s. In addition to other concertos, including Mozart, Schumann and Grieg, Mr. Lupu recorded duets with the violinists Szymon Goldberg and Kyung Wha Chung, and two or four hands works with Mr. Barenboim and Murray Perahia.
When Mr. Lupu’s solo records capture just a whiff of the aura he displayed in concerts, his ethereal nature is rendered almost palpable on several of them, including one of Schubert’s 1982 Impromptus that draws an impossible tension from the natural flow of his vocal lines; a pair of Schubert sonatas that won a Grammy Award in 1996; and a collection of late 1970s Brahms imbued with such understanding, such light and shadow, that the result, as the critic Alex Ross put it, “is as close to musical perfection as you could ask for. “