In the second half of his recital yesterday afternoon at the Baltimore Museum of Art, pianist Mark Markham equaled a world record. His performance of Liszt's gargantuan, sprawling Sonata in B Minor took less than 26 minutes -- most take about a half-hour -- beat by a nose those of the young Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein and equaled that of the redoubtable Martha Argerich.
Markham's performance was not a flashy stunt but a profoundly musical return to the grand manner in which the B Minor Sonata used to be played. Nowadays, most performances -- Argerich's has been the great exception -- "interpret" the sonata, dwelling overmuch on its myriad details, trying too hard to render its spectacular bag of tricks too cleanly and, thereby, missing the epochal sweep that makes the sonata a Rosetta stone for the Romantic era's stresses and exaltations.
In the climax of the sonata's Mephistophelian fugue, for example, Markham understood the way in which Liszt's musical language sometimes serves as gesture and that the meaning of the gesture is sacrificed by concentrating too closely on the clarity of individual words (or notes). Markham may have smudged the fugue's roulade of double octaves once or twice, but his fearless tempos and his golden, Rubinstein-like sonorities were stupendous, rather than clinical, in their effect. This was also an intelligently organized performance: the Faustian heroism and anxieties of the sonata's central passages, as well as its hauntingly beautiful opening and closing pages, seemed all of one piece.
The first half of the pianist's program moved in a masterly fashion from Mozart to Shulamit Ran by way of Gyorgy Kurtag and Debussy.
Markham rendered Mozart's Fantasy in D Minor if it were a set piece in one of the composer's contemporaneous opera seria; Kurtag's evanescent "Acht Klavierstucke" flitted with energy and wit; and the vague outlines of three selections from Book I of Debussy's "Preludes" ("Les Sons et les Parfums Tournent dans l'Air du Soir," "Les Collines d'Anacapri" and "Des Pas sur la Neige") were drawn with a disciplined technique and a delicate sensibility.