When Viktor Valkov appeared at the Southampton Cultural Center on Saturday, he regaled the audience with works by Beethoven and Liszt. Though the choices were varied, they shared some important commonalities: They were among the composers’ less-often-heard works; they were mostly of a freer, less structured form; they had many moments of beautiful, soulful delicacy, and fewer high points (that were all the more glorious and dazzling for it).
The concert was part of the Rising Stars Piano Recital Series, with Liliane Questel as its director, which features recent Pianofest participants. Mr. Valkov has come to the East End for Pianofest’s last two seasons. He has appeared extensively in his native Bulgaria, including with the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra in 2007. He has given recitals in Greece, Italy, Germany, Japan, and the U.S., and debuted at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall with the cellist Lachezar Kostov in 2009. Having completed a master’s degree at Juilliard, Mr. Valkov is now pursuing a doctorate at Rice University in Houston.
First on the program, Beethoven’s Fantasy (Op. 77) is unusual in its loose, improvisatory form. The opening cascading scale sets up a feeling of struggle and questioning so typical of Beethoven. Mr. Valkov’s playing accentuated the continual changes of mood, from the melancholy adagios to the sunlit prestos.
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 27 in E minor (Op. 90) is also unusual, for two reasons. It has two rather than the more common three movements, and instead of the customary tempo indications in Italian, he wrote detailed instructions in German. This probably shows a conscious move toward a more individual, independent, romantic style: “With liveliness and with feeling and expression throughout,” he instructed, and “Not too swiftly, and conveyed in a singing manner.”
The alternating themes in the first movement were described by Beethoven as “a contest between the head and the heart,” and Mr. Valkov nicely brought out the determined, resolute, and dogmatic melody of the head, countered by the high-spirited desire of the heart to break free of constraints. The second movement, by contrast, was more serene, with an atypical, quiet ending.
Mr. Valkov used the sustain pedal lightly and sparingly, which, combined with his facile technique, gave a beautiful yet light legato to the lines through the Beethoven, quite appropriately. He also used the una corda (soft) pedal more than many pianists do, which gave not only a quieter tone but a slightly different timbre.
He then played two Consolations by Franz Liszt (Nos. 2 and 3). These are from a group of quite short, highly melodic, longing, and reflective pieces.
They highlighted what had been apparent throughout the program, namely Mr. Valkov’s propensity for the quieter, subtler, more lyrical moments. His very sensitive playing reminded me of a word of advice from one of my piano teachers: “Play each note as though you hate to leave it, but know you must.”
When complimented after the program for his ability with this kind of playing, he broke into a broad smile and said, “But that is Liszt!”
By contrast, Liszt’s “Grosses Konzertsolo” (Great Concert Solo) was intended as a dazzling show piece, written for a piano competition. It is not played very often, partly because it is considered somewhat meandering and because it has been overshadowed by his later sonata, which it points to in its themes.
Nevertheless, there is little anywhere in the repertory that is more virtuosic, difficult, or demanding — or, in some moments, thundering — than the “Grosses Konzertsolo.” Mr. Valkov has been called a lion of the keyboard by the Wiesbader Kurier, and here it was apparent how he earned that nickname. He is not one to be a virtuoso merely for the sake of virtuosity, but, make no mistake about it, when full fire and fury were needed, he was there 120 percent.
If there was any hint of a letdown in the evening, it was that even after three or four curtain calls there wasn’t an encore in the offing. There were some disappointed sighs, but, as a few said afterward, what could follow the Liszt?
Piano fans may want to follow up with the rest of the series: On May 14 Margarita Shevchenko plays Brahms and Chopin, and on June 11, for a change of pace, the duo of Elizabeth Joy Roe and Greg Anderson perform their new concert piece based on tunes by the French singer-songwriter Jacques Brel, as well as their “Carmen Fantasy” and transcriptions of Mozart arias. More information can be found at the cultural center’s Web site.