Three Switched-On Pianists Offer High-Voltage Recitals

Alfred Brendel once likened ideal communication between a concert performer and his listeners to an electric current-a good shorthand description of a two-way process that’s essentially indescribable. For the current to achieve full charge, the performer must have all his capacities switched on and in perfect alignment: an intellectual understanding of the composer’s intentions and style; a mastery of the music’s technical difficulties and its imaginative implications; and the courage to convey his love for the music to strangers whose expressions he cannot see. The listeners, for their part, must be in active receiver mode, eagerly submissive to the music’s every manipulation, whether terrifying or delightful; they must trust in the performer’s ability and taste.

As every pianist will tell you, bringing Mozart into a concert hall presents a special challenge unique to the composer’s spirit, which, for all its inimitable directness, is as contradictory as human nature itself. This is how Mr. Brendel puts the matter in an essay entitled “A Mozart Player Gives Advice to Himself”: “Finding a balance between freshness and urbanity … force and transparency, unaffectedness and irony, aloofness and intimacy, between freedom and set patterns, passion and grace, abandonment and style-among the labours of the Mozart player, this is only rewarded by a stroke of good luck.” This spring, Mr. Brendel gave a recital at Carnegie Hall and, with characteristic fearlessness, made the first half of his program a test of his own medicine.

In my experience at Brendel recitals, good luck has not often attended his opening pieces. A man of impish humor offstage-a sampling of which can be found in a newly published collection of poems entitled Cursing Bagels -he arrives onstage looking like a not entirely kindly professor, peering at the audience through owlish spectacles as though counting the lecture hall’s empty seats (usually, there aren’t any). He seems personally affronted by latecomers and coughers-you can almost see his nervous system working-and it can take 20 minutes or more for his knobby personality to settle under the skin of the music, for thought and feeling (both of which he has in abundance) to merge so that art banishes all traces of worried pedagogy.

For me, his Mozart balancing act achieved, at best, an awkward grace. His choices were refreshingly unhackneyed: the darkly innovative Fantasia in C minor, K. 396, which was published in 1802, after the composer’s death; and two sonatas (in B-flat major, K. 281 and in E-flat major, K. 282), which exemplify his mercurial temperament. Mr. Brendel clearly cherishes the “difficult” Mozart, but he seemed to be making a case for these quirky pieces rather than letting them speak for themselves. Mozart italicized in this manner provided a fascinating antidote to the music-box Mozart that has sugared the reputation of so many of his piano sonatas. Mr. Brendel lost sight of two Mozartean qualities that he astutely identified in his advice to himself: unaffectedness and irony.

But he emerged after the intermission a different man-released of fussiness, devoted only to beauty. Sublime is not a word I normally think of using about this pianist, but it is justly applied to Mr. Brendel’s playing of Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke , D. 946, and Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30, Op. 109. No pianist today rivals this craggy paragon of Central European erudition for understanding what drives the great classical composers and gives them their peculiar distinction-he sees Schubert as a sleepwalker, Beethoven as a stonemason-and he slipped so completely into their sound worlds that what we followed was no longer the mere processing of musical ideas, but the flow of two colossal, questing imaginations: the somnambulist’s and the master builder’s. It occurred to me that Mr. Brendel may have conceived of this program as an object lesson in how largeness of vision can emerge from severely compressed forms-a point he elegantly demonstrated in his single encore, Schubert’s G-flat Impromptu. However, there was nothing didactic in this electric current, only the flow of a great performer’s love.

In a season of piano recitals, nothing else that I attended quite came up to this level, but two other performers also achieved breakthroughs at Carnegie Hall. One was Murray Perahia, who gave the most full-throated performance I’ve ever heard from him. Mr. Perahia is the most handsomely recorded American pianist of his generation. His albums, on Sony Classical, of Bach, Handel and Chopin are immaculately listenable; his Mozart concertos, recorded in the 1970′s, remain the gold standard in that repertory. He’s a pianist with everything in perfect, well-tempered balance-he never puts a wrong foot forward. Yet his live performances can lack that ultimate something that makes you forget you are witnessing a performance; call it nerve.

Some years ago, he apprenticed himself to Vladimir Horowitz, apparently in the hope of acquiring some of the older pianist’s famous thunder. He emerged from the experience with an injured hand that kept him away from the concert stage for several years. Last month Mr. Perahia showed the thunder. In his opening piece, Beethoven’s Sonata in G Major, Op. 31, No. 1, he amplified the singing clarity of his playing with an orchestral richness of tone and an expansiveness of spirit that put the piece squarely in the place where Beethoven might have conceived it-in the jocosity of a Viennese coffeehouse. His playing of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke stretched this cycle of exquisite character pieces beyond their usual miniaturism into a phantasmagoria of Romantic tone painting. After the intermission, he attacked Brahms’ mighty Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel with an almost frightening bravado. Here are some of the adjectives I jotted down in response to Mr. Perahia’s sharply characterized delineation of each variation: eerie, urgent, questioning, granitic, ecstatic, delicate, deep, majestic, ardent. The great fugue that closed this exhaustive-and sometimes exhausting-survey of pianistic hurdles was a blizzard of contrapuntal sonorities in which you could hear Brahms shaking his fist at his arch-rival Wagner and shouting, “You think you’re the last word in classical grandeur? Wait till you hear this!” Horowitz would have beamed.

And the Old Thunderer would have found much to smile about in the playing of a young Russian pianist, Olga Kern, who made her Carnegie recital debut a few nights later as a replacement for Krystian Zimerman, who canceled because of illness. Ms. Zimerman is a Polish Olympian with a fanatical following (which includes me), and there were plenty of empty seats in the Isaac Stern Auditorium. But the advance word on Ms. Kern was strong-she won the gold medal at the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and had recently been glowingly reviewed in The New York Times -and the hall buzzed with anticipation. A graceful blond beauty on the order of Ms. Kern’s does not always presage pianistic fire, but she wasted no time in serving notice that she definitely has the chops.

She began where Mr. Perahia ended-with the Brahms/Handel variations-and though her technical assurance was never in doubt, her account of the work seemed more determined than inspired. Next came Samuel Barber’s fearsomely note-packed Piano Sonata, of which Horowitz himself had given the world premiere, in 1949. Again, Ms. Kern demonstrated formidable powers of organization, accuracy and speed-everything but an ability to relax and let the music take over, to let, in this case, Barber’s sly booziness, his American jazz, emerge out of the feverishly modernist thicket.

The second half brought her closer to home (she lives in Moscow) with Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli, three Rachmaninoff song transcriptions, and Balakirev’s Islamey , a fantasy of Orientalist kitsch that would be hilarious if it weren’t almost impossible to play. This was a young prize-winner’s program-a parade of showpieces whose every measure the Wunderkind had polished to a fare-thee-well-and if it was all a bit much of a muchness, I was bowled over by her chutzpah. Ms. Kern revels in opulence, and she even found moments to put a smile on her blazing implacability, especially in a group of encores that knocked the socks off, among other pieces, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” which she’d obviously mastered shortly after emerging from her mother’s womb. The audience adored her, and so did I. Next time, I’d like to hear more of the musician behind the music, the person behind the pianist.