After surfacing from her deep and much-acclaimed immersion in the music of Czech composer Leos Janacek a couple of years ago, the British pianist Ivana Gavric embarked on a new journey, this one into the music of Edvard Grieg. She was so intent on understanding the Norwegian composer that she even traveled to see the landscapes that inspired him — and the results were strikingly clear in her impressive, insightful U.S. debut Sunday at the Phillips Collection, where Grieg and Janacek formed the core of a program that linked late romanticism to 20th-century modernism.
Gavric’s affection for Grieg was clear from the opening notes of the Piano Sonata in E Minor, Op. 7, written when the composer, heart still firmly attached to sleeve, was only in his early 20s. It’s not played often — maybe because its considerable sound and fury don’t always feel driven by any convincing purpose — but Gavric brought it to life in a fine and impassioned reading. Smaller-scale but more satisfying were the two later miniatures, “Butterfly” Op. 43, No. 1 (which Gavric played with a darting and almost weightless touch) and the rich lyricism of “Peasant’s Song” Op. 65, No. 2.
The cascading torrents of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s finger-breaking “Moments Musicaux” Op. 16, No. 4 rounded off the first, rather romantic half of the program, but the most interesting music came in the second half. Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s recent “2 Lyric Pieces” were sketchlike homages to Grieg and Janacek done in an improvisatory and almost jazzy style, and the afternoon closed with a furiously virtuosic account of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 14.
The real heart of the program, though, may have been Gavric’s multilayered reading of Janacek’s “In the Mists.” Delicately woven, shifting subtly between light and shadow, the work’s dark mysteries unfolded with rare insight; it was a ravishing performance.
Brookes is a freelance writer.