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Russian pianist quarrels, attacks and fox trots in spectacular debut at the Phillips

Russian pianist Lukas Geniusas. (Irina Polyarnaya)

Lukas Geniusas placed second at the Chopin International Competition in 2010, and again at the Tchaikovsky in 2015. Whatever the value of those judgments, Geniusas (the name is pronounced with a hard G, “GEN-yu-shas”) made a spectacular Washington debut Sunday at the Phillips Collection.

The young Russian blew past the first benchmark to meet, technical prowess, with an explosive rendition of Bartok’s “Three Burlesques.” His “Quarrel” movement was vituperative, but the other two movements were more than virtuosic, the “Slightly Tipsy” movement drenched in swirling color and the “Capriccioso” lost in a daydream.

Geniusas took risks with the fast tempos of Prokofiev’s second piano sonata, making the Scherzo an exercise in anxiety. In the tumultuous Vivace, so fast it had the chaotic atmosphere of a circus, he attacked the repeated notes with savagery. But the moody rubato approach to the first movement and the inner voicings of the slow movement, pedaled hazily, made the performance unique.

Subtlety distinguished his set of Chopin mazurkas, a velvety touch evoking folk music instruments such as bagpipes, hurdy-gurdies, or shepherd’s pipes. Geniusas savored the dissonances and blue notes of these pieces, best in the melancholy Op. 30 No. 4. An eclectic range of musical interests also came out in two fascinating encores, Grieg’s “Drommesyn” and Leonid Desyatnikov’s jazzy “Foxtrot” (in the pianist’s own transcription).

All of these qualities combined to optimal effect in Schumann’s “Faschingsschwank aus Wien.” Often pianists have either the technical fortitude for the outer movements or the discernment to make the three inner movements sing. Geniusas excelled at both, capturing the work’s frenetic energy, razor wit and despondent gloom. The eponymous carnival prank is probably Schumann thumbing his nose at Vienna’s imperial censors, who had denied him permission to publish his music journal there, with a sly allusion to the banned melody of “La Marseillaise.”