Michael Brown is a stellar stand-in at Phillips Collection recital

October 29, 2012

With Hurricane Sandy hard on his heels, the up-and-coming young pianist Michael Brown blew into town on Sunday afternoon for a recital at the Phillips Collection, standing in at the last minute for pianist Leon McCawley, who had canceled because of illness.

Brown made the most of the opportunity, presenting an eclectic and often revealing program that ranged from Schubert to the sophisticated modernism of George Perle — with a work by Brown himself at center stage.

Much of the first half of the program had a distinctly Spanish flavor. Brown opened with Isaac Albéniz’s “El Puerto” from the well-known “Suite: Iberia”, and it was immediately clear that Brown favors a direct, robust approach to the piano, full of vivid colors and and gestures chiseled in stone. That approach worked beautifully in works like Perle’s clever, extroverted “Toccata” from 1969 (which Brown played with verve and obvious affection) but wasn’t quite as convincing in Debussy’s luminous “La Soirée dans Grenade” (from Estampes) and Ravel’s “Alborada del gracioso” from “Miroirs.’ Both works live and breathe on their delicate nuances and fine shadings of color; too much power and their light just seems to blink out.

Brown’s technique is impressive, though, and he showed it off to fine advantage in Schubert’s fast-paced Sonata in D Major, D. 850, turning in a reading that was long on muscle if a bit short on tenderness. But it was the pianist’s own “Constellations and Toccata” that revealed the most about him. The work had received a stunning performance by Orion Weiss at the Terrace Theater back in January, but Brown’s own performance (from a score he read off an iPad on the piano) was exceptionally beautiful, from the spare, nocturne-like opening to the explosive toccata that closes it.

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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