Austrian Pianist Brings Tuneful Vienna to Life

By Joseph McLellan
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 26, 2001; Page DZ14

As happens frequently, the best musical bargain in town last weekend was the free concert at the National Gallery Sunday night.

The performer was Barbara Moser, a young Austrian pianist who has won several major competitions, made five solo recordings and embarked on an impressive international career. Her program was devoted largely to music from Vienna -- Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert -- and she played with a special sensitivity to the unique lyric qualities of that city's music.

The Schubert segment was a set of songs transcribed by Franz Liszt, who filled the program's second half with piano adaptations of music originally composed to be sung. From the 56 Schubert songs available in Liszt transcriptions, Moser played five carefully chosen for elegance, contrast and familiarity.

The art of reconstructing a song on the piano poses special challenges to the composer and to the performer. The goal is to take advantage of the piano's brilliance and freedom while retaining the expressiveness and sense of vulnerability associated with the solo voice -- in effect, to create the illusion that the piano has to breathe. This art is one that has been developed to a high level in Vienna and that Moser understands.

The other Liszt selection, "Reminiscences of 'Norma,' " presented a different kind of transcription, an opera condensed into a piece for solo piano -- vast panoramas of virgin forest with Druids and Roman legionaries and a mother struggling to reconcile forbidden love and stern duty. No other composer has had quite the touch that Liszt had for creating this kind of drama, and Moser responded to his imagination brilliantly.

She opened the program with Mozart's Fantasy in C minor, K. 475, a work that came into being as an improvisation and was polished into its final form, strikingly like the mature style of Beethoven, through repeated performances before Mozart wrote it down. Played properly, the music comes across as though happening for the first time. That's how it sounded in this performance.

The highlight of the program -- the best music and the most brilliant performance -- was in Beethoven's Fifteen Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme, Op. 35, known as the "Eroica" Variations.

Beethoven used the same theme in the glorious last movement of his Third Symphony. The music goes through dazzling transformations requiring prodigious technique and a highly developed feeling for forms. Moser supplied what was needed.

Sunday's program will feature flutist Karen Johnson and pianist Brian Ganz. The National Gallery's 58th American Music Festival begins May 6 with a jazz concert.

2001 The Washingt Post Company