The American Liszt Society's 1990 Festival got off to a rousing start Thursday night at Catholic University without so much as a "Liebestraume" from the composer's catalogue. Pianist Bronislawa Kawalla instead performed brilliant works by J.S. Bach and Chopin that tested her artistic merits on both an intellectual and an emotional level. Kawalla's probing accounts seemed less the efforts of a translator than a medium for the spontaneity of her play.

This became apparent early in Bach's "Goldberg" Variations, whose rigid formal plan (every third variation is a canon until the conclusion) nevertheless allows some interpretive freedom. Kawalla met all the technical demands with a cautious ear for clarity. No matter how intricate the contrapuntal lines became, one could pick out each one and follow its path. It was no surprise to read in the program that Kawalla is a former first-prize winner at the Bach International Competition.

The recital's Chopin portion was a mixed bag that improved as the opus numbers got lower. The F-sharp Barcarolle, Op. 60, partly due to overexposure, partly because Kawalla chose to overstate its case, came as a letdown. Kawalla's subtly expressive approach to the three Op. 56 mazurkas was a welcome return to the earlier level of quality, although her most thunderous, and arguably most winning, commentaries occurred in the "Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise," Op. 22. Liquid phrasing and a steamrolling sense of urgency spelled Chopin's poetry in capital letters.