Lise de la Salle, the 25-year old French pianist who started Duke Performance’s piano recital series five years ago, returned to Durham on Saturday, presenting a recital of French “impressionist” works and two sets of Teutonic theme-and-variation pieces. De la Salle’s readings of these works were compelling, discriminating, and lyrical, bringing out the subtle diversities of her program. Duke Performances’ Aaron Greenwald introduced her as “a more seasoned musician on a more mature instrument,” an accurate description underlining the close connection of the pianist and her medium for this beautiful music.

Her opening piece, Ferrucio Busoni’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from the d-minor violin partita, S.1004, has, more than any other of Bach’s instrumental works, survived with a burden of myth; most recently, scholars have suggested that the Chaconne is a ciphered lament for the death of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara. Conspiracy theories aside, the Chaconne, which is the final movement of the d-minor dance suite, stands out for its length, depth, and musical weight carried over a simple ground bass; it has inspired composers throughout the centuries, including Brahms, who transcribed a version for piano, for the left-hand. Busoni’s arrangement is wild music, appropriating equal parts Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, and Busoni, in order to create a palette of piano mastery over an Italian dance. De la Salle’s playing brought out the difference between violin and piano playing – sustain versus percussion – and her deft pedaling seemed even to simulate bowing the melody at points. Busoni’s version of the Chaconne runs the danger of becoming a mere exercise in multi-voiced piano playing, but de la Salle’s execution beautifully highlighted the orchestrational quality. The piece’s penultimate variation was particularly expressive, with its delicate lightness leading to a powerful, sustained ending.

De la Salle opted to play Ravel’s Miroirs second on the program, replacing the originally-programmed Gaspard de la Nuit; Gaspard, with its famously difficult third movement, was written after Miroirs, and may have been the more adventurous choice, but Miroirs presents a delicate exercise in prescient hypermodernism. Certain moments, like the distorted melody of the first movement’s middle section, presage modernist musical landmarks like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, while others, like the final movement’s ending chord with a sustained fourth, lead the listener to wonder what has happened to traditional tonality. The piece paired well with the modal confusion of the Bach/Busoni Chaconne. The second movement, with its contrasting deep bass and treble bell tones, proves, in de la Salle’s hands, that the piano is still the instrument best-suited for creating magic.

Brahms’s Theme and Variations in d minor, Op. 18b, is a piano version of the second movement of his String Sextet, Op. 18, which he reduced to piano for Clara Schumann. Similar to the Chaconne theme-and-variations idea, Brahms’s work revolves around a repeating bass line, and is well-suited for showcasing a virtuosic pianist; at times de la Salle appeared to be moving her mouth to recruit a melody from the instrument, an expressive tool used by many pianists (with audible commentary in the case of Glenn Gould, for example).

The recital ended with excerpts from Debussy’s Préludes, Books I and II, though not in any observable order. At times, de la Salle’s playing presented Debussy’s writing as more staid and conservative than Ravel’s, though inhabiting the same tonal space. Her right hand provided the perfect color for the melody, especially at the end of “Les fés sont d’exquises danseuses,” in which she plucked the keys as if they were harp strings. “Le danse de Puck,” from Book I, offered the requisite humor involved in Puck’s monologues and eventual farewell. Her pedaling was perfect throughout the Debussy, allowing the certain parts of the music to sustain like a background illusion.

This program worked because of its contrasts, major and minor: the theme-and-variation sets, with their clear tonal and formal schemes, were worlds apart from the foggy pentatonicism and modal shifts of Debussy and Ravel, and grounded the program with accessible music. Yet de la Salle’s playing even accentuated the variations between Debussy’s and Ravel’s piano writing, differences which might be obscured in the hands of a lesser musician. At age 25, however, de la Salle surely has decades of maturity ahead of her; for example, the lightness of her touch in the upper register seemed to hover between lyricism and pedanticism at times. The audience seemed split, leading to an awkward moment as applause was dying and the door opened for one final curtain call; the applause did die, and no encore was performed, but we can hope that does not mean that Lise de la Salle will not return to Durham to display her further musical maturation.

The piano recital series continues with Louis Lortie on March 7. For details, click here.