The chairs were out for the returns queue at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday night. Word was spreading that this might be the last chance for London to hear Radu Lupu play. He has long preferred to avoid the capital's concert halls - whether because of iffy acoustics, acidic critics or other reasons I could not say - and an appearance with the Philharmonia Orchestra and conductor Paavo Järvi for Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto looked almost too good to be true.
Lupu, 73, is tall and imposing on the platform, yet somewhat frail in gait and balance. His Beethoven came through in parts almost as a memory of the concerto. Yet the unique quality of his playing lies in the touch itself. It's the transparency of tone, the cushioned finesse of it, and the way he turns a phrase that, in a matter of a few notes, suggests a deep, empathetic humanity and a profound love for the music.
He uses a chair rather than a piano stool and sits at the keyboard almost as others might at a desk, as if making notes (in every sense, of course). He's thinking aloud with his hands. His playing is a form of writing, a direct channel from mind and spirit. And it is quiet, fabulously so. Rather than slamming out sounds to reach the back of the auditorium, he pulls the audience in towards him, forcing you to listen.
A few memory lapses were accompanied by a half-humorous dismissive gesture with one hand; and in the final movement's cadenza he wasn't above turning a pause into a joke, catching Järvi's eye as if to say 'OK, wait for it....' Järvi proved the perfect accompanist, deferring to Lupu but keeping everything gently on the rails, perhaps stoking up the orchestral energy if the solo line had wandered into the realms of introspection just before.
One hopes that the suggestion Lupu might be winding up his concert schedule this year is not true, but it wouldn't surprise me if it is. I'm sure I wasn't the only person present who listened to his exquisite encore of Brahms Op.117 No. 1 - the darkest of whispered lullabies - with a fearful lump in the throat.
(Please read this beautiful tribute to him by fellow pianist Kirill Gerstein, which appeared in the New York Review of Books for Lupu's 70th birthday.)
Järvi, having proved himself a master of managing energies, did so again in the second half, with a taut, glistening, impassioned account of the Rachmaninov Symphony No.2. It was the perfect cathartic finale for a rather emotional concert hall, and as an interpretation it had the glorious variety of a great epic narrative: the elemental fire of Tolstoy, the fantastical colours of Bulgakov and the aching passion of Chekhov. The Philharmonia played as if their lives depended on it.