The Washington International Piano Festival opened Sunday at Catholic University’s Ward Recital Hall with an imposing recital by Irish pianist John O’Conor, who teaches at the Shenandoah Conservatory. Offering a fresh take on some timeless staples of the piano repertoire, O’Conor began with Beethoven’s Six Bagatelles, Op. 126, followed by his Sonata in C Minor, Op. 13 (the “Pathétique”), and Schubert’s wrenching late Sonata in C minor, D. 958.
True character pieces, the Bagatelles are charged with intriguing opportunities to saunter through quickly changing expressive episodes. O’Conor took advantage of Beethoven’s bouncing emotions, sliding easily from the first Bagatelle’s tender lyricism to moments of pure whimsy and ferocity. And the pianist skillfully refined his touch to convey Beethoven’s chaotic outbursts or reflect his withdrawals into solemn introspection. Overall, O’Conor bundled this succession of elliptical ideas into a whole, affirming the cyclic nature of the music.
Next, the pianist plunged into the ferocious opening chords of the “Pathétique” with a commanding presence and solid control, while underlining the dialogue that pervades the Allegro section. He met the songful radiance of the Adagio with a serene, delicately wrought legato, and romped through the finale with seemingly carefree abandon.
The Schubert sonata seems an endless succession of lovely, tuneful episodes overflowing with notes that appear to go nowhere. But O’Conor carefully phrased and characterized the beauty of certain fleeting moments — the heady oscillations between major and minor, Hungarian dance rhythms and snatches of inner turbulence matching Schubert’s gloomy “Winterreise” song cycle.
Porter is a freelance writer. The festival concerts continue through Sunday.