Ghosts of performers past stand guard over standard repertoire, and it takes a ruthless individualist to wave then off. But Nareh Arghamanyan never seemed to consciously repudiate her predecessors in an extraordinarily charismatic Philadelphia Chamber Music Society appearance Wednesday night at the American Philosophical Society. Rather, it was as if the 23-year-old Armenian-born pianist had never encountered them at all, and was interested only in her own personal communions with Bach, Schumann, and Rachmaninoff.
What this meant in the oft-played Fantasiestücke was the declaration of Schumann as a composer not completely of his contemporaries, but apart. That she underlined the two contradictory sides to the man referred to as the "prince of art" - the imaginary characters Florestan and Eusebius - was just the start. She had a direct line to the essence of each of the eight movements, consistently making the unobvious choice.
Time signature and note values became casual advice in the first movement, "In the Evening," whose gauzy left hand against a crystalline right blended into a half-remembered summer twilight. Phrases ended in question marks, or at least ellipses. Frantic, sputtering, silent, thundering, the second movement managed to be volatile without growing overwrought. The third, "Why?" was an exercise in time suspension.
The sense of grandeur in the last movement wasn't from the massing of sound other pianists use, but from regal pacing and the space she put around certain rhythms. By endowing the material with dignity, Arghamanyan preserved Schumann's own ambiguity over whether these are wedding bells or a death knell.
The entire second half of the program was turned over to Rachmaninoff, whose Opus 33 Études-Tableaux (Nos. 1-6) was dominated by a stunning performance of the No. 6 in E Flat Major that highlighted, with scherzo-like touch, perhaps the composer's furthest outlier from traditional tonality.
But the Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Opus 42, told us more about Arghamanyan than any other piece on the program (which also included a wonderfully detailed account of Bach's Partita in C Minor, BWV 826). The theme is a short one (not actually written by Corelli), and manages to invoke a half dozen or so other Rachmaninoff works (a piano concerto, the Paganini variations), and so the piece was a window into Arghamanyan's approach through a wide swath of material. You could almost hear a cimbalom in the handling of a variation with Hungarian harmonies.
Her extreme sensitivity to subtle voicings came through in Rachmaninoff's "Elégie in E Flat" from Morceaux de fantaisie, where the melody moved to the bass while the soprano turned pale. The extent of the player as a determining factor was even more evident in the "Prelude in C Sharp Minor" from the same piece. With the liberties taken by Arghamanyan, you might never have known how four-square those opening chords look on paper. And if the agitated storm in the middle section startled some, it struck me more as revelation than disregard for any hovering specters.
Contact Peter Dobrin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.