With the Foothills Chamber Music Festival taking this year off, lovers of live classical music must be undergoing withdrawal from their opiate of choice. Peter Kairoff’s matinee piano recital, presented on August 14 the auditorium of the Babcock Wing of Reynolda House, was a welcome balm to the spirit. The pianist is a Professor of Music at Wake Forest University who has served as Director of their overseas campus in Venice, Italy. He has several important recordings of music by American composers on the Albany label. His Reynolda program was being repeated in Carcassonne, in the south of France, for the Musique en Euroregion Piano Festival. A small Steinway – possibly a Model B – was used. In what is becoming a common pattern, extra chairs had to be added in the 190-seat hall.

The pure pleasure of the dance dominated Karioff’s beautifully articulated performance of the French Suite No. 5 in G by J.S. Bach. The tempos chosen for the seven movements were apt. The voicing of the musical lines was even and clear and the characteristic “French” ornamentation was delightfully realized, especially the trills. The stately Allemande and the quirky slow “Loure,” with its hesitant phrasing, were memorable. The culmination was a fast and joyful Gigue that abounded in virtuosity with its independent scoring for each hand. Kairoff did not try to suggest the sound of the harpsichord too closely and made tasteful dynamic choices while displaying nuances of timbre.

Karioff managed to encompass all the mercurial twists and turns of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30 in E, Op. 109. Two ideas – a vivace theme and an adagio passage – are rapidly alternated without allowing either to be fully developed. A short prestissimo follows before the sound of the cadence of the first movement can decay. The heart of the piece is the gorgeous slow movement, which consists of a theme followed by six variations that lead to a restatement of the theme. This was Beethoven’s first use of theme-and-variations for the finale of a piano sonata. Each of the six variations has its own tempo and character indication. Karioff’s performance was breathtaking as he hewed closely to the composer’s instructions that translate roughly as “in a singing style, with the utmost feeling.” While the first, second, fourth, and sixth variations are slow by subtle degrees, the third and fifth are quite lively.

Karioff is reviving the piano music of George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931). In brief comments from the stage, the pianist noted that The New York Times‘ obituary called him “the foremost American composer.” A period of European study had strengthened the composer’s Francophile side, reflected in several of his piano works. In notes for his recording of 22 of Chadwick’s thirty piano pieces (American Character, Albany Troy 745), Karioff writes that “all of Chadwick’s piano music is written in the style of the ‘Character Piece.'”

Only in some of Dominico Scarlatti’s showier sonatas have I seen as much hand-crossing as Kairoff used in Chadwick’s “The Frogs.” Perhaps I am too used to hearing keyboard pieces such as the character vignettes of Francois Couperin, Le Grand, on recordings. I kept listening for imitation of frog calls and completely missed the obvious – the crossed hands were the metaphoric leaps of the amphibians! “In the Canoe” is a real American barcarolle with harmonic language that Karioff says “owes much to Fauré and Franck.” Other pianists ought to consider adding this to their repertories. A gently flowing “singing melody float(s) over a rocking triple-meter accompaniment” before encountering musical “rapids.” “The Rill,” clearly reflecting Chadwick’s familiarity with Debussy and Ravel, is the composer’s most Impressionistic piece, conjuring a shimmering stream rushing through a landscape. The waltzes in F minor and in A-flat are finely-crafted salon pieces. This selection whetted my appetite for more works by the composer.

Three pieces by Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) demonstrated the composer’s wide range. One of the MacDowell’s most familiar works, “To a Wild Rose,” is distinguished by an unforgettable melody. The Impromptu, the fourth of Twelve Virtuosic Études, Op. 46, features a fast and swirling theme along with striking independence for both hands. “March Wind'” (No. 10) is a miniature tone poem for keyboard with descending arpeggios and increasing low rumblings building louder and louder until it winds down to a gentle ending.

If there was any doubt about the strength of Karioff’s technique, it vanished in the deep resonance and surging dynamics of the Prelude in g-sharp minor, Op. 32/12, and the Étude-Tableau in D, Op. 39/9, by Sergei Rachmaninov. This was a superb recital that featured refreshing choices of music matched by refined musicianship.