In an eclectic program Tuesday night at the Sottile Theatre, pianist Roberto Plano offered a fine balance of braininess and passion. No matter what he played, whether Scarlatti, Smetana or Liszt, the young Italian carried it off with a relaxed technique and demeanor that betrayed little ego. Plano's evident goal was to do justice to the music.
Plano's recital was part of the College of Charleston's International Piano Series, one of four offered this school year.
The first half of his program was an experiment. Plano decided to inject short ballades by the contemporary Turkish pianist-composer Fazil Say between works by Italian composers working primarily in the 18th century.
Plano's excuse was the connections that could be drawn - musical and historical - between the various pieces, but it came across a little forced, and perhaps took too long. Besides, the ballades by Fay, "Nazim," "Kumru" and "Sevenlere dair," were unconvincing; they were too much like pop music or a movie score. Only the last of the Fay pieces, "Black Earth," sounded original and interesting, with its muted passages that required Plano to reach into the piano and dampen the strings with one hand.
The best of the first half was the pair of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, played with flair and feeling. The rarely heard sonatas in the Classical style by Galuppi, Luchesi and Cimarosa were perfectly articulated, with great care given to the voicing. Plano had a way of letting the melodies played by the right hand ring out strongly while the left hand provided harmony and texture that was itself distinct even if played more softly.
The fireworks came in the second half, first with a pair of short, lovely Impromptus (op. 14) by Alexander Scriabin. For all of Plano's apparent interest in the Classical repertoire, he played this late-Romantic work with an extra degree of love and admiration. The braininess and passion still mixed in equal proportion, but the result - that gush of sound - was much more invigorating.
Smetana followed Scriabin: Sketches, op. 4. This was a set of four short pieces, "Prelude," "Idyll," "Memory" and "Persistent Endeavor," which Plano delivered in a way that satisfied the part of the brain that controls basic emotions, I think it's called the amygdala, while at the same time feeding the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which controls executive functions and abstract reasoning.
That's the particular magic of Plano: he gets you to feel and think simultaneously.
The concert ended with a truly sensational interpretation of Liszt's piano transcriptions of Isolde's Liebestod from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" and the Miserere from Verdi's "Il Trovatore." Here, all of Plano's skills - his excellent technique, braininess, self-effacement and soul-stirring expressivity - reached their apex.
The Liebestod was especially moving, with its tremolos and bittersweet melody; the Miserere was a feat only the finest of pianists can pull off. Besides being big and loud, it covers the full range of the keyboard and embeds the melody in the middle voice while both hands are playing fast arpeggios.
Plano, despite the speed at which his fingers flew, made every note clear and brought forth the melody for all to hear. It was a stunning performance.
He returned to the stage to play a short encore by the 20th century Austrian pianist-composer Friedrich Gulda, and pushed the Steinway to its limit with fast, staccato, two-handed rhythmic flurries that combined classical and jazz styles. It was a show piece, and great fun. Plano's hands were a blur.