Cecile Ousset's performances Monday night at Tawes Theatre -- the second recital in the University of Maryland's International Piano Festival -- showed many of the attributes usually mentioned when the subject of great pianism comes up.
These qualities were best demonstrated when the French pianist, now in her middle 50s, concluded her recital with Saint-Saens' "Etude en Forme de Valse." Ousset's touch -- which has an attractively percussive, almost ringing quality -- was perfectly suited to this buoyant music. The rapid pianissimo figures were dispatched with extraordinary skill and the cascades of notes could not have been more fresh and beautiful.
Performances of Chopin's "Fantasy" in F Minor and "Ballade" in F Minor, however, showed that one needs intellect as well as a glittering technique, power and precision to play Chopin. The "Fantasy" (I missed the long funereal introduction) was executed with brilliant hammer strokes. The presence of sound and fury, however, did not compensate for a missing sense of drama. Ousset's magnificent clangor did not substitute for the to-and-fro of a passionate dialogue.
The "Ballade" was even more frustrating in its lack of subtlety. The pathos of its opening, its undulating waltz rhythm and its alternating grandeur and passion all seemed matter-of-fact in this pianist's interpretation.
In Liszt, Ravel and Debussy, however, the pianist was on firmer ground. If Liszt's swift and elusive "La Leggierezza" sometimes thundered unnecessarily, his "Sonnetto del Petrarcho" was performed with a successful mix of elegance and sentiment. Ravel's "Valses Noble et Sentimentales" was beautifully detailed and colored and played with a sense of elegant line. Debussy's first book of "Images" also demonstrated coloristic imagination of a high order and a keen sense of atmosphere. The fierce gymnastics of the same composer's "Feux d'Artifice," played as an encore, were dispatched with extraordinary virtuosity and a sense of drama that made the piece as affecting as a vivid dream.
Thursday's recital by Nelson Freire has been canceled because the pianist is suffering from bursitis. The seven judges on the Kapell Competition jury -- a roster that includes pianists as distinguished as Russia' Oxana Yablonskaya and Germany's Peter Rosel -- will substitute for him, each playing a single work.