It was fitting that Mussorgsky's panoramic "Pictures at an Exhibition" was the centerpiece of the opening recital Saturday night of the University of Maryland International Piano Festival.
That is because the festival is the adjunct of the university piano competition, newly named after the late and greatly lamented William Kapell. And "Pictures" was on the final program of Kapell's career -- what one would give for a copy of that performance -- just before his life was cut short in an airplane crash in 1953.
"Pictures" is not a work that every pianist should take on. It is tremendously demanding, both in terms of digital intricacy and in the range of interpretive challenge. It is all over the place, both physically and expressively. And it is long, a test of endurance.
Enrique Graf's performance was impressive. A former Maryland competition winner, he played Mussorgsky's big series of musical tableaux with imagination and technical command. The wit of "Pictures" was deft, as in the delectable ending of "The Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells."
There often was memorable tonal coloring; in "The Old Castle," for instance, the separation of the main line in the treble from the bass, which was played more quietly, was beautifully sustained. There was the crystalline delicacy of the articulation in "Children Quarreling After Play." And as for bravura playing, there was velocity, power and clarity in octave passages, as in "Baba -- Yaga."
It was refreshing to hear "Pictures" on the piano, the way Mussorgsky wrote it. Certainly the Ravel orchestration, the way we normally hear it, is a grand accomplishment. But one grows tired of it. Furthermore, the composition is full of nuances that work better on the piano (startling releases and attacks, for example). How could an orchestra, for all its virtuosity, quite duplicate the definition of Graf's bass trills in "The Gnome"?
And Graf's performance showed that the cliche' that Mussorgsky's keyboard writing is ungainly is simply untrue. It often is, in fact, quite beautiful.
*The rest of the program was fine, but it came up to the level of the Mussorgsky performance only in the final presto of Haydn's E-flat major sonata, Hob. XVI/52. Graf played the mercurial and fitfully witty creation with zest and did some lovely filigree playing.
* "Pictures" came before intermission, and even the piano sounded a little tired in the second half. The six Debussy preludes had their moments, but some notes, especially in the bass, had less than full body (this is one of three Steinways that artistic director Eugene Istomin has brought in especially for the festival and competition). At the end was a rousing Liszt "Mephisto Waltz."
* The judges, by the way, winnowed the competitors down to nine semifinalists on Saturday. They are Lawrence Blind, Peter Collins, Arthur Greene, Duane Hulbert, Dalya Khan, Thomas Labe, Nelson Padgett, Carolyn True and David Allen Wehr.