Listen to Aldo Ciccolini playing a Liszt rearrangement of Donizetti, as he did last night in the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre, and you can guess that he was born in Naples. Hear him clarifying the quirks, mysteries and angularities of Ravel's "Valses nobles et sentimentales"--carrying a sense of line through the music's discontinuities--and it comes as no surprise that he now lives in Paris. But his Schubert--the Four Impromptus, Op. 90, and the three posthumous Klavierstu cke, D. 946--marks him as a citizen of the world.
Besides all this, last night's program confirmed what is already well known: Ciccolini avoids standard cliche's, and his is one of the finest lyric talents of the piano today. He makes it easy to forget that the piano is essentially a mechanical contraption, capable of doing very complex things and splendid in its dynamic range, but limited in expressive possibilities. He makes the piano breathe like a human voice--like a variety of human voices.
His program focused largely on lyrical selections, with just enough drama, rhetoric and technical virtuosity to provide contrasts. In Liszt's "Valse de concert sur des motifs de Lucia et Parisina," his phrasing was often exquisitely operatic, particularly in the music for the duet "Verrano a te sull' aure," which provides much of the piece's thematic material. But there was also, sometimes, a touch of the organ-grinder flavor, which is an integral part of Liszt's style, at least when he uses such material.
The flavor was also vocal, but strikingly different, in the Schubert material--notably parts of Impromptu No. 3 and Klavierstu ck No. 2, where sometimes the phrasing approached that of the Lied--voice and accompaniment. It is hard to imagine many pianists who are not accompanists studying "Die Scho ne Mu llerin" for ideas on how to phrase Schubert's piano music. But if Ciccolini has not formally made such a study, he has instinctively learned what it would teach him.
Not that lyricism is his only mode, but that he does it so well. The First Impromptu was built with a superbly calibrated pace and sense of climax from its simple beginning through increasing tension and complexity. The tone of the Bo sendorfer piano was rich, subtle and superbly varied throughout the evening.