Grandiloquence is an occupational hazard for a solo musician. There you are, alone onstage, playing works that are acknowledged to be monumentally great with breathtaking ability. It can be hard to avoid assuming the trappings of greatness.
Exhibit A is Dejan Lazic, who made his Washington debut Saturday afternoon as part of the Washington Performing Arts Society's Hayes Piano Series at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. Lazic, 33, is a pianist, composer and sometime clarinetist. A few years ago, he made a strong mark as a performing partner of cellist Pieter Wispelwey. More recently, his claim to fame was turning Brahms's violin concerto into something dubbed "Piano Concerto No. 3," which he recorded with the Atlanta Symphony earlier this year. The feat ranks somewhere on the "because it's there" spectrum of human achievement: attention-getting, large scale and a little empty.
His recital of Chopin and Schubert on Saturday was unfortunately on the same spectrum. The selection of those two composers is usually a way to demonstrate a pianist's sensitivity as well as his virtuosity. This performance, though, kept one eye fixed on monumentality. Some of the pieces, such as Chopin's Scherzo No. 2, sounded less like light solo piano works than an attempt to rival the volume of a concerto with full orchestra. This scherzo became cartoon-like in its lurches from minutely small to very, very large.
It's not that Lazic isn't sensitive - or profoundly gifted. The very first notes of Chopin's Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante at the start of the program signalled that he can do anything he wants at the keyboard, detailing chords with a jeweler's precision, then laying little curls of notes atop a cushion of sound like diamonds nestled on velvet. Again and again, throughout the afternoon, he showed what a range of colors he could get out of the instrument, switching from hard-edged percussiveness to creamy legato, crackling chords to a single thread of sound. The sheer technical ability was, at first, a delight.
Soon, though, all of the finesse started to seem like an end in itself. Every nuance of the music was underlined visibly with a host of concert-pianist playacting gestures: head flung back at the end of a phrase; left hand conducting the right hand; or a whole ballet of fingers hovering over keys and picking out their targets before an opening note was even struck at the start of Chopin's Ballade No. 3. There were fine moments, but they stubbornly refused to add up to anything more than a self-conscious display of Fine Moments. The final movement of Chopin's Second Piano Sonata was in a way the most successful part of the program: sheer virtuosity, and perfectly unhinged.
Schubert's B-flat Sonata, D. 960, was a chance to shift into another gear and show a more reflective side, but it was a chance Lazic didn't quite take. The notes, again, were exquisitely placed, and there were things to like, but the human side fell short. All of the precision didn't help bring across the lyricism of the first movement's theme, or the threat of the bass growl that keeps warning off ease from the bottom of the keyboard. The second movement, instead of being a searching, tugging quest, was reduced to merely very pretty music.
The pianist was received with reasonably warm applause, but it didn't last long enough to draw an encore - which ought to get his attention. He's a pianist of prodigious gifts, and he's too good not to do better, to move beyond the music's challenges and into the realm of its soul.