The Phillips Collection concerts are back in the renovated museum, and the setting is visually better than ever. For the season's opening concert yesterday, pianist Virginia Lum gave a program that was highly imaginative before the intermission, quite familiar but beautifully played after intermission.
The music room is not yet in its final post-renovation condition, but it provides a striking setting for a mind-boggling collection of French paintings from the time of Ingres to that of Matisse and (blue period) Picasso. Renoir's "Boating Party" radiates color into a room that also contains masterpieces by Ce'zanne, Daumier and Degas. In the anteroom are several of the best pieces from the museum's small but excellent Paul Klee collection.
During performances, the music room has indirect lighting, warm and unobtrusive, which leaves the paintings enjoyable but not spotlighted and sets a good mood for music. This lighting was exactly right for the second half of the program, which consisted of all four Chopin Ballades, played with a fine sense of romanticism, secure technique that did not call attention to itself and a particular mastery of the fine points of phrasing, subtle pauses and delicate shifts of tempo that are at the heart of good Chopin interpretation. In the Ballades, even more than some of his other work, Chopin often requires playing that is almost vocal in style, and Lum met this requirement superbly. She also has a good sense of the music's patterns of tension and relaxation.
The first half of her program was devoted entirely to compositions based on the old Spanish dance tune "La Folia," which is probably second only to Paganini's "24th Caprice" in the number of composers who have used it for variations. A whole program -- and quite a long one -- could easily have been made of such material, but that might have been too much of a good thing.
Lum wisely chose three well-contrasted works, one each from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's Theme amd Variations on "La Folia," Rachmaninoff's "Variations on a Theme of Corelli" and Liszt's "Rhapsodie Espagnole," in which the "Folia" theme merges into a brilliant Aragonese jota -- the same lively, colorful folk dance that brought down the house in the recent Zarzuela show at the Kennedy Center. This material (particularly the flamboyant Liszt) was the occasion for showing virtuosity, and Lum used it effectively in a performance that was brilliant without being flashy.
The C.P.E. Bach work is simple and slightly square, but not unimaginative, with a few moments that look ahead to the age of Romanticism, almost to Rachmaninoff. Its stylistic ambivalences were neatly conveyed. The Rachmaninoff is moody, brilliant, and better disciplined structurally than most of his efforts in larger forms -- an attractive piece of music that was well-played. Not many works using similar thematic material could come as a climax to the Rachmaninoff, but Liszt's "Rhapsodie" is such a work and it gave this part of the program a brilliant conclusion.