Chopin devotee Brian Ganz is elegant, earnest at Washington International Piano Festival

The Washington International Piano Festival, one of several piano festivals that crop up across this region’s academic landscape in summer, tenants the dog days with an array of recitals by gifted very young musicians and established older ones — often back to back. On Tuesday, Brian Ganz brought his Chopin act to Catholic University’s Ward Hall following a group of young artists, the youngest of whom was 7. (I didn’t hear them play, but I wish I had.)

Ganz is devoting 10 years to performing every piece Chopin wrote for the piano. His program Tuesday was a revisiting, and revision, of the program he played at Strathmore in January, his third Chopin recital in the series. He started with the four ballades and ended with the 24 preludes: the macro format of the ballades contrasting with the miniature preludes, adding up to a formidable chunk of music.

Ganz, as a player and an onstage presence, is elegant, thoughtful and earnest. He flings himself into the music physically but without getting carried away; he is deliberate in his spontaneity. On Tuesday, he gave each phrase plenty of time to unfold, drawing out pauses, pulling on the tempi like taffy; there was no question where he stood on the issue of what Chopin meant by “rubato.” He was clear to the point of exaggeration when outlining a staccato passage in the third ballade or drawing out the ending of the first.

But if there was a touch of preciousness in some of his details, his dramatic conception was anything but. Both halves of the program offered groups of works that were written as sets but not necessarily intended to be performed as sets, yet Ganz made cogent through lines in both — a particularly difficult feat with the four ballades, because the first one is so much stronger than the ones that follow.

In the preludes, he delineated each of the 24 episodes while presenting a compelling sweep of music that flew by. If he sometimes mined the individual preludes for drama — bringing out the darkness and dissonance of the second prelude or floating his right hand to gently kiss the top keys in the third — he did not descend to mere histrionics; there was always an underlying sense of balance and clarity.

Ganz has seven seasons to go with his Chopin project; stay tuned. The Washington International Piano Festival is also continuing, but only through the weekend, with concerts at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on Thursday and Friday and a concluding recital by Yekwon Sunwoo — the winner of the 2012 Kapell competition — on Saturday afternoon.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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