- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 6, 2004

Nearly a year after copping first prize at the 2003 William Kapell International Piano Competition at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, young pianist Ning An returned to the scene of his greatest triumph Saturday to perform a recital of extraordinary breadth and difficulty. His is clearly a major 21st century talent that has only begun to make its presence felt in the classical music world.

Featuring works of Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, and Liszt, Mr. An’s recital underscored his continuing development as a pianist of uncommon originality and imaginative interpretations. At 26, he’s still capable of youthful indiscretions — silently lip-syncing the melody line, exhaling loudly prior to karate-chopping a chord, stamping on the floor with percussive force. But the breathtaking brilliance of his highly individualistic interpretations transcends such awkward moments as Mr. An breathes new life into old favorites.

For example, he opened the first movement (molto allegro) of Mozart’s Sonata in C minor, K. 457 with a steely determination that would have done Prokofiev proud. Mr. An’s vision here was, in many respects, as iconoclastic as Glenn Gould’s quirky if occasional imaginings of Beethoven and Chopin in the 1960s.

Mr. An’s ability to produce limpid, bel canto lines is uncanny, which was immediately evident in the contrasting second movement of the Mozart. Chopin, his signature composer, greatly fancied the operas of Bellini for this fluid style of singing and strove to reproduce the effect in many of his piano works. Mr. An often finds such lines in places where one wouldn’t expect them, including internal accompaniments and bass echoes.

Mr. An next performed Schubert’s Drei Klavierstucke (D.946), three relatively unknown works published posthumously in 1868. Typical of Schubert’s idiosyncratic approach to structure, each work in this suite blends the sonata form with the capricious characteristics of an impromptu.

Mr. An made the most of the violent contrasts in these works, alternating Sturm und Drang with a kind of sunny innocence, most notably in the first and second pieces. His interpretation of the third, an allegro in C major, however, was most impressive, as the thunderous outer section morphed into a cathedral like chorale that reminded one, under his hands, of the processions in the finale to Moussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Mr. An next trotted out the popular Chopin Ballades in G minor (Op. 23), F major (Op. 38), and A-flat major (Op. 47), with each receiving a definitive performance. At times, he seemed almost to be channeling the composer. His novel use of the pedal to purposely smudge some of the tones in the F major was a stroke of genius. And his alternation of string-stressing power and gentle lyricism in the A-flat would have pleased Liszt mightily.

And speaking of Liszt, Mr. An concluded his program with that composer’s “Rigoletto: paraphrase de concert,” based on arias from Verdi’s famous opera. Often ridiculed as mere puff pieces by 20th century snobs, Liszt’s paraphrases and transcriptions were extraordinarily popular in the 19th century not only as virtuoso vehicles but as a way for MP3-deprived audiences in the hinterlands to gain access to the popular opera tunes of their day.

Mr. An ripped through Liszt’s party piece with gusto, undeterred by the massive waves of passagework that were a hallmark of the legendary Hungarian. This impressive display of good old-fashioned Romantic pianism sent the audience into transports, necessitating two brief encores before the artist was able to slip out of the recital hall into a moody, misty, Chopinesque Maryland night.

***1/2

MAXIMUM RATING FOUR STARS

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