The German pianist Severin von Eckardstein, who played a rapt and deeply poetic Washington debut recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater Saturday afternoon, has already been dubbed the "new Horowitz" by one Dutch critic. In reality, he is much better than that: He is the first and only Severin von Eckardstein -- and that is plenty.
I do think I would have exactly reversed the order of his program, however. Eckardstein began with Robert Schumann's Fantasie in C (Op. 17), a masterpiece of such profound intimacy and wondering tenderness that nothing should follow it but tears. It was a terrific performance, too, played with infinite gentleness: Eckardstein doesn't proclaim, he confides, a quality that was especially welcome in the finale, a slowly unfolding ecstatic delirium unmatched in music before Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." Yet the 27-year-old pianist has the chops to whiz through the leaps and skips in the closing bars of the middle movement, one of the most terrifying minutes for pianists in the entire repertoire. (The great pianist Glenn Gould used to say nervous musicians approaching a certain passage in Beethoven took on the look of "horses led from burning barns" -- the Fantasie inspires similar anxiety.)
The remainder of Eckardstein's program was made up of Cesar Franck's Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, followed by an intermission, then Ravel's "Gaspard de la nuit" and finally Prokofiev's Sonata No. 4 in C Minor. All are fine pieces -- the Ravel is more than that -- yet they could not help seeming anticlimactic once we had been exposed to the fathomless depths of the Schumann.
Still, Eckardstein's playing was very beautiful indeed -- lyrical, colorful, impulsive, intelligent. The Franck can come off as formal and academic in the wrong hands; here, one section led to the next as if in a meticulously structured reverie. The flashy pyrotechnics of "Gaspard" seemed impelled by a darker, richer inner flame, and one was taken anew by the sheer sonic inventiveness Ravel displayed in this piece, as radical and unprecedented as anything in Schoenberg or Debussy. And the Prokofiev Sonata, a mature reconstitution of fragments from student pieces he had disavowed, served as a reminder of just how early this composer found his voice: Precious little of the music, much of it dating from Prokofiev's mid-teens, could have been by anybody else.
The program was presented by Washington Performing Arts Society, as the first offering of the season from its justly acclaimed Hayes Piano Series. Most concerts in this series are sold out; there were some empty seats Saturday, but word of mouth should ensure that Eckardstein never plays to another one in Washington.