How long will it be before the pianist hits that last note? You might have held your breath, as I did, waiting for Ilya Poletaev to strike the final note of the Bach "Sarabande" encore Wednesday night at the end of his Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital debut at the American Philosophical Society.
That one note might not have mattered, except that it was another in an impressive series of individualistic moves that explained why this debut mattered. It showed that the hierarchy of two of the city's most important artistic gatekeepers is working as it should. Astral Artists noticed the young pianist years ago, and in the unstated language of our cultural ecosystem, a PCMS recital meant an arrival.
Poletaev, now 36 and a Montreal resident, made good on the promise -- stunningly, many times over -- in a recital of Bach and Schumann, and the pianist's quite convincing advocacy of Enescu as a composer of gifts deeper than those evident in the Romanian Rhapsodies. The Piano Sonata in F Sharp Minor, Op. 24, No. 1 has the feel of a stream-of-consciousness storybook, a quality Poletaev underlined through differentiating colors in different registers. The starry, meditative third movement -- with its pinpricks of light, echoes, and crushingly atmospheric chords -- seemed to transport to another time and place.
The pianist had his own strong opinions about interpretive matters, though always in the context of what aspects of the composer he thought mattered most. Who did he think Schumann really was? Mercurial, bordering on unapologetically random and unhinged, at least from the sound of Poletaev's take on Schumann's Humoreske. He is right, of course. There was no attempt to sand down Schumann's jagged edges, to soften the blows of sudden changes in thought and mood. Through a liberal amount of rhythmic distortion, Poletaev revealed the wonderful truth in Schumann's anxieties, obsessions, and wild tangents -- that his was a reality apart. Resolution (sanity) was all the more sweet in the penultimate section, which the pianist rendered in the most tender shades of sincerity.
Poletaev's attention to the individual color of each line brought a three-dimensional quality to both Schumann and Enescu -- and to Bach. Parts of the Overture in the French Style in B Minor are woven of a dense fabric of competing voices. That Poletaev navigated the technical demands meant he understood the work as a tower of musical math. But in making connections among voices, delineating distinct colors, not to mention the small matter of building expressive points of arrival and release, pianist and composer joined. They were as a single poet.