Jonathan Shames, a young musician who was one of two American pianists to make the finals in the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, made his Washington debut at the Phillips Collection yesterday.
Shames proved to be a player of considerable strength and agility. His performance worked best in strenuous bravura passages, like the concluding fugue of Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy and the thundering passages of the Prokofiev Eighth Sonata. In such places Shames' work was notably clear and vigorous, and it took on an intensity sometimes missing elsewhere.
On the whole, the more ruminative sections were phrased with less clarity. There was an occasional tendency to overpedal and he played too slowly in the adagios of the Schubert and of Beethoven's E-flat Sonata, Op. 27, No. 1. Even a Schnabel would have had trouble sustaining the line at these speeds.
The highlight of the concert was the Prokofiev. It is a veritable symphony for keyboard, a product of the war years. The sonata frequently recalls the two mighty symphonies, the Fifth and the Sixth, that came from that same agonizing period.
The first of its three movements, in particular, has that same sense of emotional desolation, with a trancelike uncertainty of harmony, hovering in a ghostly void somewhere outside but still ironically related to a major key.
The Haydn Sonata in E-flat, Op. 84, one of the big ones he wrote late in life, opened the program. The performance was alert but a little bland.