Constructing a recital of just two pieces might seem to limit the number of chances to take in the whole personality of the performer. But Rachmaninoff's Thirteen Preludes and Schumann's Carnaval are two exceptionally sprawling and varied canvases, and on Wednesday night, Alexandre Moutouzkine proved a pianist exceptionally sensitive to worlds the composers might have hoped for beyond the written page.
In his Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital debut at the American Philosophical Society, Moutouzkine revealed a series of beautifully detailed character sketches - one by an artist (Rachmaninoff) who was a progressive posing as a traditionalist, and the other (Schumann) whose progressiveness still boggles.
The Schumann was the greater accomplishment - a sharper, richer vision. Moutouzkine had a lovely range of sounds in the Rachmaninoff, and a keen ability to bring out the best qualities in a piece that connects with the composer's piano concertos and four-hand repertoire. His technique was crystal-clean. In the fifth prelude (G major), Moutouzkine seemed consciously to evoke a harp, a watery repose swiftly revoked by the Liszt-like bark of the sixth (F minor).
But Schumann's Carnaval was in a different category of sophistication. The material, of course, has incredible dramatic range (perhaps even a recurrent mood disorder). Moutouzkine understood Schumann's erratic emotional line as its genius, underlining rhythmic and tempo distortions to mercurial ends - ecstatic, then flaccid, and back. The 21 movements make for a parade of characters real and imagined, domestic and fictitious - a harlequin, Chopin, Schumann's love objects. Moutouzkine drenched the atmosphere in distortion and layers: frustration when something is constantly getting in the way; the impetuousness of three ridiculous notes that keep interrupting the show; how a dance as reliable as a waltz can grow slippery; childlike curiosity; flashes of anger and ecstasy; and the incredible charm of a well-paced deceptive cadence. All these Moutouzkine presented as friends to be prized for their eccentricity.
Only Bach could have restored order, and he did, in an encore, but one buoyed by unusual amity. Rachmaninoff's transcription of the "Gavotte" from the violin Partita No. 3 was crisp to the point of being carefree. He might have done without the second encore, Ernesto Lecuona's Mazurka Glissando (though it was played with incredible polish), but the piece did tell the audience it was time to quiet their praise and go home, and they complied.