The nervous tension generated each year by the William Kapell Competition -- tension that incites young pianists to outdo one another in dazzling technical feats -- was worlds apart from that of Menahem Pressler's performance as the Piano Festival's first evening recitalist Sunday night at Tawes Theatre.
Amid the bustle created by latecomers and music students leafing through their scores, Pressler created an illusion of intimacy that made Brahms's Lullaby the only logical choice for a final encore.
Beginning with Beethoven's Op. 31, the "Tempest" Sonata, Pressler played lightly and clearly, with vigor but without massive sonorities in fortissimo. He never forced his tone; he spanned the range of dynamics Beethoven calls for, from pp to fff, without exaggeration. Even during some elaborate hand-crossing, the chamber musician in Pressler avoided any flourish that would call attention to itself.
That restraint was particularly remarkable in Ravel's fabulously difficult "Gaspard de la Nuit." Pressler didn't handle the piece as a virtuoso work, but rather as a vivid, poetic painting. During "Le Gibet's" macabre departures, Pressler maintained a lugubrious mood (especially in the limply repeating octaves), without settling for empty grotesquerie.
Chopin's 24 Preludes, Op. 45, were filled with wonderful turns of phrase. He stayed away from flowery romanticization and its dreaded opposite -- the rigidly metrical approach. In such a level-headed performance, all that was missing was a sense of adventure, a "what happens next" feeling in shaping this tonal journey.