“I found even the most elementary rudiments of piano technique very difficult,” he confessed to The Monitor, “because it required a great deal of self-discipline, and as for years I had imagined that I would become once a composer, I had always felt that this kind of perfection was not going to be necessary.
Despite this, Mr. Lupu placed fifth in the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna in 1965 before winning the Cliburn final in Fort Worth the following year. “I really 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, recalled Mr Lupu inviting the jury to tell him which of the Beethoven concertos to play; they refused, and he won with the first move of the Third. He recorded this Beethoven with Lawrence Foster and the London Symphony Orchestra in 1970 – a prelude to his later comprehensive study of the five concertos with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Despite such successes, it has already struck listeners as anything but a standard product of the competition circuit. “He is somewhat different from the winner of the regulation contest, in that he is not primarily a brilliant, impeccable technician,” Raymond Ericson wrote in The Times of Mr. Lupu’s debut at Carnegie Hall in April. 1967. Harold Schonberg, also in The Times, thought Brahms’ First Concerto, with which Mr. Lupu returned to the hall in 1972, “willful, episodic and mannered”, but admitted it had at least “the virtue not to be stamped with the same old cookie cutter”.
Mr. Lupu, who retired in 2019, made few recordings for a pianist of his stature; he admitted to becoming tense in the presence of studio microphones and even radio. A box set of his solo releases on Decca has only 10 discs, the last from the mid-1990s. Along with other concertos, including Mozart, Schumann and Grieg, Mr. Lupu has recorded duets with violinists Szymon Goldberg and Kyung Wha Chung, and works for two pianos or four hands with M. Barenboim and Murray Perahia.
While Mr. Lupu’s solo records capture only a hint of the aura he exhibited in concert, his ethereal character is made almost tangible on several of them, including one of Schubert’s Impromptus from 1982. which draws an impossible tension from the natural flow of its vocal lines; a pair of Schubert sonatas that won a Grammy Award in 1996; and a collection of late Brahms from the 1970s that is imbued with such understanding, such light and such shadow, that the result, as critic Alex Ross put it, is “as close to musical perfection you could ask for”.