Anyone feeling a little trampled by the thundering herds of virtuosi around town these days would have done well to head down to the National Gallery of Art on Sunday night, where pianist Roger Wright put on a program of impressionistic works that was remarkable for its extraordinary freshness, subtlety and originality of thought. It’s hard to over-praise the relatively unknown Wright; his technique is powerful and honed to a razor-like edge, but even more impressive is the rare spontaneity and vitality in his playing — and the sense of a voraciously hungry mind.
Wright (who is also a Scrabble virtuoso who won the national championship in 2004) alternated lighter and darker pieces throughout the evening. Charles Tomlinson Griffes’s shimmering, chromatic 1915 work “The White Peacock” was balanced against the propulsive “Masks” (1980) by the American composer Robert Muczynski, while the simple melodies and drifting arpeggios of Scott McClain’s “Snow” played to great effect against the infinite complexities of Debussy’s “Masques” and “L’Isle joyeuse.”
Wright played them all with riveting detail and insight, but the centerpiece of the evening was a reading of Maurice Ravel’s 1908 “Gaspard de la nuit” that was about as fine a performance of this pianistic tour de force as you could ever hope to hear. Wright seemed exceptionally attuned to its elusive, otherworldly beauties, from the delicately shaded “Ondine” movement to the wild and almost frightening “Scarbo” that closes the work.
Wright then cleared the air with Frederic Rzewski’s colorful reworking of “Down by the Riverside” and Mily Balakirev’s finger-breaking “Islamey Oriental Fantasy,” a showstopper played with both precision and explosive fire. That brought Wright a sustained standing ovation, but it may have been the encore — Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in D, Op. 23 No. 4 — that stole the show, with a quiet, understated lyricism that went straight to the heart.
Brookes is a freelance writer.