It is an indictment of whatever it is that passes for The System in music that a pianist of the stature of Nikita Magaloff can go for decades without performing here. Surely few of the listeners at his Kennedy Center recital last night had ever heard him in concert -- this writer included.

It has been our loss. Based on this one performance, which spanned an enormous range of the piano repertory, one can say without much hesitation that, among pianists, Magaloff is one of the biggies.

It wasn't so much that everything was sublime. There were interpretive judgments with which one could differ. And the concert, which was at the Terrace Theater, did not cast the sort of spiritual spell of, say, Rudolf Serkin at his greatest.

Instead, Magaloff simply presented exemplary pianism, regardless of what he was playing. It was a daunting program, and he never seemed less than fully prepared. Technically alone, the performance was a remarkable display. Not once -- whether in the craggy complexities of Beethoven's third-from-last sonata (No. 30 in E major, Op. 109) to the Rachmaninoff-like sonorities of Stravinsky's early Four Etudes -- was there anything but total command of the notes, and of the sound. On a program like this, that alone was a very impressive achievement, especially for a 73-year-old man (even Horowitz might have hesitated to take on so much when he was this age).

Beyond that, though, there was another, and quite individual, dimension that impressed even more -- a matter of style. Throughout the evening, Magaloff brought a sort of debonair quality to everything he played -- an elegance that was unfailing and that, mixed with his enormous power, was quite special. Phrase endings, for instance, were so precise, and so seductive.

This command of style, along with Magaloff's command of the notes, was exercised with considerable musical imagination -- he kept the audience guessing. He is a particularly fine colorist.

One didn't have to agree with all he did to be deeply impressed. But at certain times his performances seemed beyond any dispute. The way he colored, and clarified, the second set of Debussy's "Images" amounted to some of the most gorgeous Impressionist playing I have heard in years. Likewise, the Stravinsky was glorious.

In Chopin's 24 Preludes, Magaloff's playing was sometimes magnificent (in the heroic final one, for example). In the more lyric ones (like the "Raindrop") he seemed to me a little glossy (though the sound was never less than beautiful).

The opening three Scarlatti sonatas, bringing out his most debonair manner, were utter joys.