The German pianist Joseph Moog made his Washington debut Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center as part of Washington Performing Arts’ Hayes Piano Series. Moog has formidable technical equipment, a taste for less-familiar repertory and, impressively for a 28-year-old musician, eight recordings already to his credit.
The highlight of the afternoon was the recital’s second half, devoted entirely to Tchaikovsky’s Sonata, Op. 37. Seldom heard today, this half-hour piece is filled with the grand, sweeping gestures so familiar in Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballets. With the majestic fanfare of the opening chords, it was easy to imagine the curtain rising on a brilliantly lit stage bustling with the full corps de ballet. The lyrical slow movement displayed Moog’s ability to create a truly ravishing sound in quiet passages, although rhythmic rigidity hampered the fullest expressive effect.
If Moog’s finely calibrated soft touch is one of his great assets, his full throttle loud playing is often aggressively harsh. He also does not employ much of a middle dynamic range — the “mezzo piano” to “mezzo forte” that, in piano playing, is the equivalent of a conversational tone of voice.
The resulting impression of alternately shouting or whispering robbed Beethoven’s “Eroica Variations” of a good deal of their agility and humor.
But Liszt’s “Two Legends” — exquisitely wrought proto-
Impressionist pieces of great finesse — suffered the most. In “St. Francis of Assisi’s Sermon to the Birds,” the little birds attending the saint are evoked by soft, gossamer trills, arpeggios and tremolos in the piano’s high register. By repeatedly interrupting these delicate textures with brittle, extraneous accents, Moog effectively dispelled any sustained sense of atmosphere in the music.