Schumann's "Kreisleriana" gets its title from a fictional character, the lunatic composer-conductor Johannes Kreisler. The piece lasts half an hour and consists of eight disjunct mood pieces that pose so many difficulties--both pianistic and interpretative--that the long performance tradition of this Everest of a piece is littered with failure.
In his recital Sunday afternoon at the Phillips Collection, Christopher Harding, a relatively obscure young pianist, arrived at the summit with technical equipment that forged a big, clear sound cutting through Schumann's tangled counterpoint; a highly developed lyrical touch that kept the melody arched and naturally inflected; and a musical temperament that shaped Schumann's protracted climaxes with rhythmic and dynamic intensifications that slowly gathered strength, accumulated over time and finally detonated.
Harding's Mozart--the charming Sonata in F, K. 332--had a relaxed swing to it, an edge that came from spare pedaling and clean phrasing, and warmth generated from the pianist's obvious delight in the music. Harding described the three Debussy "Estampes" as "postcards," and so they are; his sensitive, highly colored tonal landscape was bright with a sense of discovery and fun.
Copland's orchestral "El Salon Mexico," in the Leonard Bernstein transcription for piano, is a witty travelogue that splinters catchy Mexican folk tunes into kaleidoscopic meters. Harding delivered it with exuberant panache that engaged the ear every step of the way.