Jose Carlos Cocarelli, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1959, approached the piano at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater last night as if it was a fearful fire-breathing dragon to be slain.

The young Brazilian seemed paralyzed with fear each time he began one of the program's four selections; he touched the keyboard with several fingers tentatively, recoiling them as if they were burned. Then he thrust his hands forward, and played some sacrificial opening notes. Suddenly he became the conquerer, vanquishing in turn difficult works by Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Samuel Barber.

Cocarelli is a soulful pianist and consummate technician, whose only piano teacher until he was 18 years old was his mother, a music critic. He recently won second prize in the prestigious VIII Concurso Internacional de Piano Paloma O'Shea, bypassing the usual conservatory route before performing a number of recitals worldwide. His style and interpretative powers are still maturing, but impressive nevertheless.

He has a genuine gift for articulating notes and ideas with clarity and precision. Sometimes, however, his great depth of feeling hindered the music's progression; the musical pulse would disintegrate; and phrasing become disjointed. Oddly, the second movements from Mozart's Sonata No. 13 in B-flat, Beethoven's Sonata No. 31 in A-flat, and Debussy's "Pour le Piano," all suffered this problem. Barber's Sonata in E-flat minor, while played powerfully throughout, verged on noise, the piano's sound alternating between stringentness and harshness.

The devilishly difficult works also rendered moments of transcendent beauty. Cocarelli distinguished himself with his nimble fingering and sense of purpose. With Debussy, especially, he found a kindred artistic spirit; Cocarelli explored the gamut of colors and textures of the impressionistic score. The audience shouted their approval, and many gave him a standing ovation.