Pianist Joseph Kalichstein, whose most recent NC appearance was with the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio just last month, returned to the Tar Heel State for what turned out to be a true connoisseur’s delight – a demanding and generous recital devoted to music by Brahms and Schumann that cast new light on both masters and left many in attendance in awe.

The occasion was a gift to the community that stemmed directly from relatively new ECU pianist Benjamin Hochman‘s early studies with the visiting artist. The host’s introduction reflected the pride the younger player felt in welcoming Kalichstein to his university for this concert and a master class the following day.

The music of Brahms and Robert Schumann is often perceived as similar, but this program, which examined some lesser-known works, highlighted many of their differences. The first half explored Brahms as a perhaps unequalled composer of variations, as demonstrated by two works. The first set of Variations, in D minor, Op. 18b, is on a theme from the slow movement of Brahms’ Sextet in B-flat. The second set, the breath-taking Variations, Op. 9, is on a theme by Robert Schumann (with an additional reference to one of Clara’s piano pieces). Both scores were dedicated by the enraptured Brahms to Clara.

Wasting no time after acknowledging the applause, Kalichstein electrified the place with his passionate keyboard declaration of the theme of the first set. The room-filling sound, beautifully nuanced from the serenely restrained to the Steinway in full cry, heralded the visitor’s commanding artistic presence, and the piece unfolded with a certain inevitability and “rightness” that did more than ample justice to the music.

There was more of the same in the chameleon-like Opus 9, in which Brahms often sounds like Schumann – clearly intentional as he paid musical tribute to his close friends, but always more homage than imitation. Kalichstein remarked on this set’s strangeness, which surely accounts for its scarcity in recital programs. The performance was again compelling, and it elicited a sort of hushed reverence among the listeners.

The first half ended with a glimpse of Brahms the transcriber – here, of Bach’s famous Chaconne, originally for solo violin, set with fidelity and keen insight for the left hand alone. Kalichstein has full mastery of this, too, and made it a highly dramatic affair. There seemed to be, occasionally, too much pedal, but this was understandable, given the power of the reading – the artist actually braced himself several times by holding the woodwork above the keys with his right hand while navigating – flawlessly, one must add – some fiendishly demanding passages in the left. The place erupted with applause – the intermission was welcome for the opportunity it presented for a cooling-down!

Part two was devoted to the mercurial Kreisleriana, Op. 16, by Robert Schumann, characterized by Kalichstein in his insightful spoken introduction as “a study in mental disturbance.” It was once a staple of recital programs, but for reasons not altogether clear it is not often heard today. Revisiting it with this pianist as our guide made for a very special and constantly engaging experience, at the end of which the crowd reacted as only deeply involved listeners do – with waves of applause that ‘ere long elicited an encore that shed still more light on Brahms – his transcription for solo piano of the very famous Hungarian Dance No. 1. The bravura performance erased all possibility of doubt – if any remained – concerning Kalichstein’s absolute prowess and mastery. Bravo!

(There weren’t any program notes, but Kalichstein’s remarks were more than ample replacements. In the program every “1” was somewhat disconcertingly printed as an “I”!)

For more music from ECU, see our calendar.