Enroute to Chicago and New York’s Carnegie Hall, the distinguished Hungarian pianist András Schiff made his Duke Performances debut with a program devoted to substantial works by Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. The recital served as one of the chief attractions of this year’s Piano Recital Series and as the only solo instrumental evening on the venerable Duke Artists Series. As a result, the concert was presented in Page Auditorium, scene of many previous pianistic triumphs, over the years. By the time the welcoming remarks were completed, the hall was reasonably well filled.

On paper, there was much to admire about a program that encompassed Mendelssohn’s Fantasie in F-sharp minor, Op. 28, and Variations sérieuses, Op. 54, complemented by Schumann’s Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 11, and Fantasie in C, Op. 17, but in fact even mental health advocates would have to admit that parts of both Schumann scores make for some pretty heavy going – which explains why neither of those works is heard very often. (One could argue that the opportunity to have presented both of Schumann’s better-known sonatas, under these circumstances, ought not to have been missed, but that would have made the occasion all the more demanding on both audience and artist.)

The program began with the so-called Variations sérieuses, the title of which was, according to Susan Halpern’s fine notes, meant to imply that the music is not frivolous. Schiff took a fairly low-key, no nonsense approach, giving a restrained and soft-spoken rendition of the theme and only gradually drawing the crowd into his – and Mendelssohn’s – special sound world. There was virtually none of the sort of flamboyance that, in some lesser players, conveys to listeners that an “artist” is present – instead, Schiff’s art is almost completely manifest in the music itself. One could have heard pins drop, so attentive were the attendees, and by the end of this opening work, Schiff had amply demonstrated his prowess to the point that most of us would gladly have followed his lead almost anywhere.

It was helpful to have been won over, for Schumann’s Sonata No. 1, with its hidden themes and meanings, is not one of the repertoire’s more outgoing pieces, but Schiff brought tremendous insight to the piece and of course his flawless technique, technique that in this instance involved a good deal less pedaling and thus a good deal more linear clarity than might otherwise have been the case. Schumann’s reputation for thick textures and cloudy lines, in the hands of lesser players, might well be deserved, but on this occasion, all the Bach and Mozart that Schiff has so long championed seemed ideal preludes to the F-sharp minor Sonata.

The second half began with Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Fantasy, also in F-sharp minor, which served as a welcome tonal bridge to an entirely different kind of work, one that was at once lighter and more readily engaging but that, in comparison and contrast, seemed at times almost equally episodic. What a joy it was to revisit it with Schiff as our tour guide, for he cast new light on the work’s many felicitous moments while never permitting it to become a mere string of musical ideas.

Schumann’s C major Fantasy brought the formal program to a close. The playing was awesome on many levels – technically, of course, and artistically, too. Here’s a player who has managed to crawl inside Schumann’s skin and his psyche as well, so for this crowd he was able to reveal the inner meanings and often abrupt contrasts of the music with superior brilliance.

At the end, the public was clearly reluctant to let Schiff go, and despite the fact that he’d already delivered a full program (lasting till precisely 10 p.m.), he returned for a pair of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words and then for Schumann’s Arabesque. These received the same precise and insightful interpretations that had been the hallmarks of his earlier playing, but Schiff’s dancing eyes concurrently revealed a measure of delight in the results that helped to inspire a final round of heartfelt gratitude from the applauding audience, by then virtually all members of which were standing.

The Piano Recital Series continues on November 14 with Arnaldo Cohen and Nareh Arghamanyan, and the Duke Artists Series, with baritone Thomas Hampson’s “Song of America” on February 15. See our calendars for details as those dates draw near.