Andre-Michel Schub has been playing in this city for years, so Saturday night's recital at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was in no way a debut, as some in the audience seemed to think. But it was this enormously gifted pianist's first virtuoso outing here since he became a media celebrity, by winning first prize in the Cliburn competition.
Schub carries stardom with ease, generating musical electricity without flamboyance. He had the substantial audience in the palms of his hands, and as the concert was nearing its end the listeners were rising for standing ovations with the regularity of obeisant acolytes.
Schub is not a pianist who is easy to categorize. After hearing the lyric Mozart and Schumann of the opening half, one was convinced that he was an introspective artist who played down the brilliant externals of the music. Then, in the more extroverted Mendelssohn and Schubert of the last half, came a dash and digital command that threw virtuoso fireworks in all directions.
Either way, Schub showed a tremendous mastery of the keyboard. One could write a substantial essay on the fine points of the performance. What it boils down to, apparently, is that he is one of those rare artists whose interpretive instinct, heretical as it may be, is to bend their playing to the style of the music instead of bending the music to their style of playing.
The high point came with the most spectacular showpiece, Schubert's "Wanderer Fantasy." It is romantic music that must roar and throb and weep with ecstasy; internalizing it doesn't do much for it, as proved last year with Pollini's absorbing but emotionally inconclusive account. Schub's opening was unwaveringly heroic, the slow movement was very somber and the finale had enormous sweep and daring. A quibble: Some of those great octave runs were blurred, but maybe it was the fault of the piano instead of the pianist.
The Schumann works were two of the really great ones, the "Arabeske" and "Carnaval." The former was played more meditatively than usual, with Schub using the pedal to dote on the soft sonorities of the keyboard. He paused slightly at the phrase endings of the main theme, letting the instrument glow with the accumulated overtones.
The "Carnaval" came across similarly. The tendency was to avoid the cutting edge that some, like Rachmaninoff, have brought out in the music. Schub's approach worked especially memorably in sections like "Eusebius," Schumann's own self-portrait, where the music kept unfolding more and more slowly, as if to last forever. In the more sardonic moments, though, a little more of that Rachmaninoff angularity would have been welcome.
The opening Mozart sonata and the Mendelssohn F-sharp Minor fantasy were both impeccable.