Showing Spirit and Restraint in Equal Measure
Virtuosity of the flashiest kind is the usual currency at the International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College the New School for Music. But the Russian pianist Alexander Kobrin had different priorities on Tuesday evening, when he played Mozart and Schumann as his contribution to the festival.
It was not as if fireworks were beyond him. You cannot win a major contest like the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, as Mr. Kobrin did in 2005, without knowing how to dazzle. But here he seemed more intent on projecting clarity of texture and line.
That worked best in Mozart’s Sonata in B flat (K. 333), where a light touch and crisp articulation suited the style. That is not to say that Mr. Kobrin mimicked the sound of the fortepiano. He surrendered neither the smoothness nor the dynamic fluidity that the modern piano allows, and he gave his sense of fantasy free rein, using a shapely bass line to suggest drama in the opening Allegro and creating an almost confessional spirit in the central Andante cantabile. The finale, though certainly playful, could have been more so, but Mr. Kobrin clearly had a notion of how he wanted the work’s contrasting sections to be balanced, and he made his point clearly.
Clarity may not be the main quality a listener seeks in Schumann’s “Waldszenen” (Op. 82) and “Carnaval” (Op. 9), the two pieces that shared the rest of the program, but there was something to be gained from taking Mr. Kobrin’s unusual readings on their own terms.
In “Waldszenen” Schumann leads a listener through a forest packed with both commonplace and otherworldly visions, pointing out hunters, flowers, haunted corners and friendly bowers, all captured in richly characterized vignettes. Mr. Kobrin was a fastidious guide. The hunting scenes were suffused with swagger; a sentimental quality lay within sweeter movements like “Herberge” (“Wayside Inn”) and “Abschied” (“Farewell”). And if his account of “Vogel als Prophet” (“The Prophet Bird”) seemed unusually tame, it hinted at this odd creature’s arresting eccentricity.
If Mr. Kobrin seemed more inclined to paint Schumann’s forest in pastel hues than in vivid primary colors, he loosened up considerably in “Carnaval,” the composer’s magnificent parade of characters, real and imaginary. The portraits of Chopin and Paganini, particularly, were beautifully executed, as were the movements devoted to Schumann’s fictional antagonists, Florestan and Eusebius. And Mr. Kobrin was at his best in the spirited “Reconnaissance” and in the broad-boned finale, the “Marche des ‘Davidsbündler’ Contre les Philistins.”