American pianist Ursula Oppens has never been content in her recitals merely to gratify her audiences. She also seeks to challenge them with the unconventional.
Usually her pursuit takes the form of playing contemporary music -- something that most pianists today don't bother with, some on the pretext that modern music, with its clangor, is anti-pianistic and others simply because contemporary music doesn't sell tickets.
At her Saturday recital at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater -- her first here since 1976 -- Oppens did that, but went even a step farther. Two of the five composers represented -- Anthony Davis and Lukas Foss -- are very much a part of the current American scene, and each of their works was written in the '80s. The rest of the concert, however, delved into the past, in music that anticipates the main direction piano composition has taken in living memory. The composers were Schubert and Liszt (and Debussy in the encored "Reflets dans l'eau"), but they were represented by some of their less warmly romantic musical offspring.
There is little by Schubert that is without a lyric core. But the A Minor Sonata, D. 845 (Op. 42), is touched by a restless tension that rules out the composer's most expansive mode. Schubert seems influenced by late Beethoven here, especially by the octaves and leaps of the "Hammerklavier" Sonata and the harmonic ambivalence of the ones that follow. Momentum, though, is less compactly sustained than in those works. The first movement, for instance, opens with a theme that raises more questions than it answers, but then comes a grand second subject that cuts through the harmonic clouds. The work keeps going back and forth like this until the finale, which is almost unrelievedly dark -- concluding in a descending presto figure that has an atypical touch of the demonic. The performance was not as richly colored as it might have been. Its considerable strengths were impeccable articulation, rhythm and accuracy.
That demonic touch linked the Schubert to the concluding, and most familiar, work, Liszt's "Mephisto" Waltz. Romantic it is, but warm it mostly is not. Those cascading double octaves dazzle more than they move. Oppens did not do a great deal to limit the essential hardness of this Liszt work and the three others on the program -- as if to emphasize their link to 20th-century musical sensibilities.
That hardness is appropriate for the waltz, but it does not always serve as well in other pieces. It made the rhetorical melodrama of "Lyon" from "Album d'un Voyageur" sound all the more artificial. And it didn't help all that much in "Les Cloches de Gene ve from "Anne's de Pe lerinage."
Oppens' program bore out the current notion, though, that the little-known music of Liszt's old age is his most prophetic. The brief and eloquent "Nuages Gris" dispenses entirely with the keyboard flamboyance associated with the works of the 19th century's most celebrated keyboard virtuoso. And in the process it sounds 20th-century -- terse, and almost spectral. It was superbly played.
Both contemporary works received their Washington premieres. Foss' Solo for Piano is a 15-minute perpetual-motion creation, starting out with what sounds like a 12-tone subject but evolving into a repetitive sequence in which the initial figure keeps repeating, but is adorned by different material at different registers, with much hand-over-hand leaping. It is a percussive work, and an appealing one. Davis' "Middle Passage" was shorter and, on first hearing, more inscrutable.
The Debussy encore was beautifully played.