Pianist Markus Groh can play very, very loudly.
If this observation were made about a younger musician, it might be understood as a euphemism for the excesses of youth. But Groh, who appeared at the Terrace Theater as part of the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Hayes piano series Saturday afternoon, is not wild or uncontrolled. He just happens to have the ability to crank up the volume, which makes his playing prone to outbursts, quickly flaring up and just as quickly folding back again into the mix.
The blend of urbanity and swiftly damped passion was characteristic of the afternoon and may be a reason why such a supremely competent pianist is not, at least in this country, better known. The Hayes series is designed to showcase up-and-coming pianists, not necessarily young ones. Groh — entitled to be called young at 40 given that the title seems to persist later and later in the classical music field — has already had a considerable career, including a victory at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1995, nearly 20 years ago. He’s acquitted himself well in prior appearances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra, where he jumped in as a late replacement for Nelson Freire in the Brahms second concerto — something not every pianist is capable of doing. So it’s striking that he’s just now making his Washington recital debut.
Groh projects an easy physicality: great power loosely kept in check. He’s also a smart player. Indeed, the first half of the program, particularly the Beethoven Op. 101 Sonata, sometimes gave the impression of being overthought. Take the arresting (and loud) opening of Bach’s fourth partita, which started the program with a signal that this was a pianist’s Bach, big and fluid, not early-music Bach. Groh isn’t a player to offer manifestos, though, and once he had staked out his territory, he turned to exploring the intricacies of the music, even thinning out the textures considerably in subsequent movements. The result was a somewhat equivocal performance, every idiosyncrasy tempered by something patently inoffensive. In Op. 101, though he put his stamp on many aspects of the music as he seesawed from one extreme to another, it didn’t necessarily add up to more than surface details.
The second half of the program was markedly stronger than the first. It was supposed to open with a short piece by Osvaldo Golijov, but the pianist explained in spoken remarks from the stage that the Golijov piece, “Levante,” didn’t really have much to do with the rest of the program and opted to cut it from a performance that, as it was, lasted longer than two hours. In Hindemith’s Third Piano Sonata, however, he found a welcome straightforwardness, even in the final-movement fugue, which he briefly outlined for the audience before he played it — fugues being one of the connecting threads running through the four sections of the afternoon.
The program culminated, in every sense, with four Liszt pieces that showed Groh on his home turf. Liszt today, largely rehabilitated from the perception of him as a mere showman with odd musical ideas, is a good fit for a smart virtuoso such as Groh, who can do full justice to his probing, unorthodox mind and his finger-busting pianistic fireworks. He gave a beautifully “sung” account of Liszt’s arrangement of “O, du mein holder Abendstern” from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” and the requisite fusillade of notes and flourishes in the “Paraphrase du concert” of the quartet from “Rigoletto.” The highlight, though, was two vignettes from the collection: “Années de péleroinage: Les cloches de Geneve,” sensitive and evocative, and “Orage,” which finally allowed Groh to pull out all the stops and play at full, ear-numbing volume.
Groh gave a single encore, the first of Brahms’s 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117. The audience met him with the same combination of warmth and slight restraint that he offered them.