Piano Recital Renaissance: Virtuosity, Vacant or Sublime

One of the great pleasures of writing this column is to be proved wrong. A few years ago, I fretted about the demise of the piano recital. Conservatories were turning out keyboard virtuosos by the truckload, and the woods were full of competition winners who ate Liszt for breakfast, then vanished without a trace. The procession of pianists who regularly showed up in our concert halls was becoming as monotonous as an all-star game with the same players year after year. Batting for the Americans were Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax, Peter Serkin and Richard Goode; for the foreigners, Maurizio Pollini, Alfred Brendel, Mitsuko Uchida and Yvgeny Kissin. The last piano recital to constitute an Event came five long years ago: the once-in-a-blue-moon solo appearance at Carnegie Hall by the supernatural Martha Argerich.

This season, however, has seen more piano recitals than I’ve known what to do with. During the past few months, most of the big names have been in town, doing their usual stuff. At the sublime end of the spectrum was the Carnegie recital of Krystian Zimerman, who for me represents state-of-the-art pianism today. Like the great keyboard giants of old, this Polish artist doesn’t just play the music; he thoroughly reimagines it. With the most exquisite palette in the business, he gave beloved masterworks by Mozart, Ravel and Chopin startling color and epic dimension.

At the other end of the spectrum was the vacant virtuosity of the strangely disconnected Mr. Kissin, whose playing of the repeats in the Chopin Polonaises at Carnegie Hall achieved the rare feat of making them sound exactly like what they were repeating. I’ve never felt sorrier for a piano than the Steinway that Mr. Kissin pulverized with such force that a technician was brought onstage at intermission to administer first aid.

More encouraging was the performance of two less celebrated artists who have both begun to build a fervent local following. At Zankel Hall, Angela Hewitt’s playing of Bach had the limpid inevitability of a waterfall. In Stern Auditorium, her fellow Canadian, Louis Lortie, offered a beautifully conceived program of waltzes, which demonstrated that a piano, played with consummate elegance, could entrance as well as instruct.

At Zankel, I also heard two players whose differences point to a healthy diversity among younger pianists. At one extreme was the warmly unaffected American Jonathan Biss, who found common ground among Mozart, Schubert, Berg and the pianist’s mentor, Leon Kirchner, in a program that might have been entitled “The Limits of Rhapsody.” At the other extreme was the Euro-hip young Pole Piotr Anderszewski, who seemed determined to subvert an immaculate command of the instrument with all sorts of “expressive” touches that threatened to italicize the life out of Bach’s monumental Overture in the French Style in B Minor and the B Minor Sonata by Chopin. Nostalgists like to lament the disappearance of the great “personalities” like Horowitz and Rubinstein, but here are two young virtuosos who already sound like nobody else.

Playing a piano recital, as anyone who has ever done it will tell you, requires nerves of steel. Young unknowns, unfortified by a public persona, must feel especially vulnerable. And yet being unknown, they have nothing to fear but fear itself. Or so I thought when I attended a remarkable series of six recitals at the Metropolitan Museum given by recent winners of some of the most prestigious international piano competitions.

The impresario behind the event was Alexis Gregory, a piano buff and the founder of Vendôme Press, whose foundation set up the Vendôme Prize International Piano Competition a few years ago. Mr. Gregory’s purpose was to host a contest run on kinder and gentler lines than generally prevail in this Darwinian arena: His competition is the only one to draw its contestants from the recommendations of the world’s great piano conservatories, and it provides ongoing career help to both the pianist who wins and those who don’t.

Kicking off the Vendôme recitals was Olga Kern, the winner in 2001 of the most publicized competition-the Van Cliburn. A Russian pianist of blond good looks and a technique that mows down everything in its path, Ms. Kern buried most of the charm in Brahms’ Paganini Variations and Chopin’s F minor Fantasie and Bolero in a whiteout of notes. (Like the other players, she wasn’t helped by an adamantly uningratiating Steinway.) Only in her last piece, Rachmaninoff’s B-flat Minor Sonata, did her relentless proficiency yield to a sense that we were being taken into a composer’s distinctive world. Critics of competitions like to point out that no winner of the Van Cliburn has enjoyed a really major career. Whether Ms. Kern can escape the curse remains to be seen.

Each succeeding pianist demonstrated technical prowess on a comparable, if less blistering, level. “What do these kids eat for breakfast?” a man behind me muttered. They also displayed more consistent musical instinct. After a stiff beginning, Severin von Eckardstein, a German prizewinner of the Queen Elisabeth competition in Brussels, hit his stride with Franck’s mighty Prelude, Choral and Fugue and wound things up with a scintillating romp through Prokofiev’s piano suite from Romeo and Juliet. His sense of rhythm was so incisive that I jotted in my program, “If this guy doesn’t make it in the classical world, he can always take up jazz.”

Boris Giltburg, a Russian pianist who studies in Israel and who was a co-winner of the Vendôme Prize two years ago, impressed me with the sheer exuberance of his playing in a hugely ambitious program that ranged from the Bach-Busoni Chaconne in D Minor to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. At 21, he was the youngest of the prizewinners, and if a grand line and sheer impetuosity count for anything, he’s on his way.

The most puzzling of the pianists was another young Russian, Alexei Grynyuk, who showed persuasive originality in his quirky reading of Beethoven’s Sonata in G Major, Op. 14, No. 2, and splendid panache in six Scarlatti sonatas. But something happened during the intermission (I was later told that he’d been suffering from the flu), and the pieces in the second half (Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff) seemed to run away from him. Still, he recovered sensationally in Horowitz’s over-the-top arrangement of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody-a triumphant turnaround right out of the pages of the Old Thunderer himself.

For sheer tonal beauty, no pianist surpassed Antti Siirala, the Finnish winner of the Dublin and Leeds competitions, in his magical reading of Starker Janacek’s Sonata “From the Street.” Mr. Siirala didn’t fear to tread where few pianists go-the protracted “Diabelli” Variations-but in doing so, he became so absorbed in Beethoven’s private chuckles that he left the audience out of the joke. More thoughtful than exciting, he was perhaps the most mature performer of the competition.

Piano buffs can’t keep their opinions to themselves, and we weren’t long into the series before everyone was comparing notes with scarcely less tact than you hear in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium. The unofficial “winner,” at least among my neighbors, was an Italian pianist, Giuseppe Albanese, who shared the 2003 Vendôme Prize. An easy smile, curly-haired good looks and fabulous fingers all played their part in wowing the audience with Mendelssohn, Schubert, Bartók and Liszt. But there was something more at work here than razzle-dazzle. Afterward, I asked Mr. Albanese-a gregarious young man who told me that he’d studied philosophy at the University of Calabria-what he felt was the most important quality for a concert pianist. “Music is a language,” he said. “It’s another way to communicate. If you just want to play the piano, that’s not enough. If you don’t want to communicate, why do it?”