What is that Lupu magic? One couldn't help but be taken aback by his first entrance--that distinctive sound, in which each exquisitely balanced chord says so much, immediately changes the terms of the performance from something satisfying yet familiar to something elusive and mysteriously beautiful. I struggle at times to really hear Beethoven's piano music afresh, and Lupu is a precious if very specific antidote to that problem. If others seek a mountain-traversing clarity in their Beethoven (or at least one that always has mountains on the brain), Lupu's strolls through the woods, ambivalent about weightier landscape issues.
But if that made for a fascinating central performance, it did not necessarily make for an integrated whole, with the NSO doing its part solidly but not really complementing the deep thoughts going on downstage. Lupu's engagement in return was sporadic, at times conducting a tad, at others suddenly picking out a woodwind with which to share a passing moment.
The opening Smetana piece was not terribly interesting, and I'll agree with Downey that the driving approach was not doing it any favors. I was pleasantly surprised by how engaged I was on the Tchaikovsky, though. It's a concert piece organized around some 19th century claptrap that's seriously risking irrelevance. The program notes seemed to be having a good time with this, helpfully offering some choice quotes from the original scenario, i.e., how the second movement illustrates when "the alpine fairy appears to Manfred in the rainbow of the waterfall" and then how the third brims with the sounds of "the life of Alpine hunters, full of simplicity, good nature and a patriarchal character" (I'm thinking they vote Republican). But 21st century snark was no match for Tchaikovsky's skill in writing irresistible theater music. And Noseda, who clearly brought some of the abilities that have distinguished his work in the opera house to bear, led an earnest, relentless reading that was hard to dismiss in all but the most indulgent passages.