Brazilian pianist Maria Alice de Mendonça is recognized for her performances of contemporary music, having received many prizes in her own country and been a participant in a number of European festivals. It was therefore somewhat disappointing to find, for her Duke Music Department recital on Wednesday, January 23, 2002, in the Nelson Music Room, that she had programmed only one piece from the twentieth century, and that just barely. Her emphasis on Bach, Beethoven and Chopin was less successful overall than her delightful way with Debussy and her riveting depth in a Prokofiev encore, making one wish she had played more to her strengths with additional contemporary selections. 

Nonetheless, she displayed great confidence, demure charm and sly humor, rare in the concert hall but here entirely appropriate. She also had marvelous body English, easily guiding the audience through pauses which were not the end of a piece, as well as deftly conveying emotional content. Additional talents included pin-point precision, wide-ranging dynamics and surprising power.

Mendonça opened her program with the Bach Partita No. 2 in C minor. Some sections were quite effective, such as the sweet lyricism of the Allemande, the spiky accents of the Courante and the nimble speed of the finger-twisting Capriccio. Less effective were her often hurried tempos, a mechanical rigidity to much of the playing and little attempt at introspection. Overall, Mendonça’s approach did not seem to come from within.

Quite the opposite was true for Debussy’s 1915 “Etude pour les cinq doigts,” a funny little piece satirizing Czerny exercises. The joke is on the pianist who attempts to play it, for it involves much cross-handing and quirky, sudden bits of practice phrasing splashed over almost unbroken waves of rumbling runs. Mendonça had the piece under such control that it seems she was merely having a lark, conveying the fun to the audience with birdlike movements as her fingers rushed across the keyboard. Her affinity for this more unstructured type of music was obvious.

After a short break, Mendonça returned for Beethoven’s Sonata no. 16, Op. 31, no. 1, an odd little work harking back to Mozart with its light, sunny outer movements and its simple, repetitive middle movement. Mendonça, taking upbeat tempos, had impressive control of the many runs, producing an almost harpsichord-like ping from the keys. Here again there seemed to be more concern for precision than interpretation, resulting in many clockwork-like passages, which Mendonça often played for humor with quick head wags and bouncing elbows. Especially in the second movement (admittedly difficult for any pianist because of its musicbox effect), she emphasized the “oomp-pah-pah” rhythms unvaryingly, making the movement dull and uninteresting. Mendonça’s overall approach made the piano sound unusually bright and tinny and de-emphasized what little of the mature Beethoven there is in the piece.

The last work on the printed program was Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor. Here Mendonça found an attractive, quiet lyricism for the first part, building to a well-crafted, powerful climax. Her interpretation used little rubato or personalization, however, leading to a certain uninvolved blandness. 

Luckily, Mendonça had prepared an encore and, as is so often the case, it was the most impressive playing of the evening. Prokofiev’s “Sarcasmes” is a group of five intense pieces (composed from 1912 to 1914) with contrasting tonalities and various chromatic alterations, all very unsentimental and turbulent. The composer said the pieces reflected the cruelty of malicious laughter at unfortunates, demeaning those who laugh and making them pathetic. Heady stuff for an encore, and yet Mendonça’s fiercely committed rendering, with thundering chords and brilliant percussiveness, held the audience rapt throughout. The melancholy and pain was palpably transmitted, Mendonça surrendering to the emotions while still keeping the momentum going. The final, ominous march exuded an inevitable bleakness, chillingly depicted by Mendonça’s body as she slowly went from a combative tenseness to a defeated limpness as she let the final notes die away. This was first-rate playing of a prickly work, drawing the audience in with its conviction and authority. 

A missed opportunity, then. It is odd that someone with such gifts would not display them more readily. It is just such a talent as Mendonça who can bring audiences to the modern repertoire. Perhaps she felt we would not have been able to digest a full evening of lesser-known recent work. Based on the audience’s response to the Debussy and the Prokofiev, I think she misjudged.