Any pianist who serves up a lot of Chopin in concert this month runs the risk of comparison with the mighty Chopin playing of the Horowitz broadcast from Moscow. That certainly didn't faze the fine American pianist Abbey Simon in his concert at the Kennedy Center last night. And he came off well indeed.
Simon devoted the second half of the program to the 24 Chopin preludes -- one in each key. This is some of the most varied, most magical music ever written for keyboard, ranging in character from the slow octaval repetitions of the "Raindrop" prelude, which so many of us have learned, to the startling cascades of runs in the B-flat minor prelude.
Last night's performances brought exemplary steadiness and tenderness to the former and dazzling articulation to the latter.
Simon is well into his career, at age 64, and has obviously lived with and loved the preludes for much of it (he is now recording the complete works of Chopin). His performances of all 24 show great sensitivity to the enormous range of romantic lyric expression they contain -- each of them a little drama.
Last night's four encores showed the same sort of technical and lyric involvement.
The first, Ravel's "Ondine," one of the real finger benders of the whole repertory, was resplendent, its shimmering runs brilliantly even and delicate. Then came Rachmaninoff's transcription of his friend Kreisler's familiar "Liebeslied."
There was then a glittering reading of Chopin's F Major e'tude, followed by Abram Chasins' transcription of that great flute melody from Gluck's "Orfeo."
By contrast, the performances of the opening works seemed a little studied. There were direct, simple playings of Beethoven's Seven Bagatelles, Op. 33, and Brahms' sprawling, wonderful Third Sonata.