It is difficult to offer an aperçu of Herbert Schuch, who concealed perhaps too much. This introspective and mystical Romanian pianist, in his mid-30s, was making his U.S. debut Saturday at the Terrace Theater, in the Washington Performing Arts Hayes Piano Series. But his program — a series of short works on the general theme of “bells,” interspersed with ponderous 20th-century arrangements of Bach chorale preludes — offered a limited musical experience and an incomplete portrait of the artist. Programs related to externalities (birds, Satan, dance, the seasons, humor, the military, etc.) are fine, but all of these things include and imply a far wider range of expression than a tolling bell.
I always admire originality and refusal to pander, but Schuch’s alternative vision was a sometimes-dreary journey. And a true journey it was, as the artist played without pause through each half of the concert, leaving some audience members wondering where he was. The frequent texture of long notes hanging in the air eventually grew tiresome. Creating bell-like sounds on a piano takes no particular skill other than a heavy right foot, and Schuch dutifully held the sustaining pedal down throughout the afternoon, blurring relatively simple lines in Liszt’s “Pater noster” and in the Bach arrangements.
In works of Maurice Ravel, Olivier Messiaen and Tristan Murail, the keyboard control was impressive but too much of the same. (Why, in a program devoted to tolling bells, he would have omitted the most famous such piece, Ravel’s “Le Gibet,” is a further mystery.) Schuch flashed some real virtuosity in Liszt’s “Funérailles,” and he showed he could phrase in the grand style, but I have no idea how he would play absolute music such as Schubert or Mozart. This program might have come across better had Schuch already established himself as a complete artist, of whom we would like to hear some specialty repertoire. He is clearly a good pianist worth hearing, but he still left us with more questions than answers.
Battey is a freelance writer.