Ursula Oppens' piano recital last night at the Baltimore Museum of Art in the Chamber Music Society series was constructed with genuine intelligence. It presented the two solo piano works of Elliot Carter -- the Sonata of 1946 and the "Night Fantasies" of 1980 -- between pieces by Beethoven and Schumann, the composers who throw their considerable shadows over these pieces by the American composer.
That was in itself a clever programming idea, but Oppens took it a step farther. She performed the Fantasy in G Minor by Beethoven (a composer for the piano whom we think of in terms of sonatas) and the Sonata in G Minor by Schumann (whom we think of as a composer of fantasies).
It is the fantastic pieces of Schumann (particularly the "Kreisleriana" and the "Davidsbundlertanze"), of course, that inspired "Night Fantasies." Like those suites of Schumann, with their quicksilver changes of mood, ardent declamations, obsessively returning themes and not immediately obvious organization, "Night Fantasies" does not make easy listening. Its chirrupings and nocturnal flashes can easily collapse into incoherence. But Oppens' command of the notes and sympathy for the idiom (she helped to commission it and has long been identified with Carter's music) was such that the piece sounded not only cogent and brilliant but also lyrical and flowing.
The performance she gave of the same composer's two-movement Sonata was the best this listener has ever heard. Here, the influence is clearly that of Beethoven's Opus 111. Oppens made the craggy majesty of the first movement genuinely gripping, tore into the jazzy fugue in the second movement with virtuosic abandon and brought the piece to an ethereal and tranquil close.
The quirky Beethoven piece was played with nervous energy, and the Schumann Sonata with passionate ardor.