Pianist Joyce Yang, silver medalist in the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, returned to Fort Worth for a solo recital this week. The eclectic program, in her words a “collage,” consisted of a broad mix of styles, well balanced and thoughtfully organized. She opened with Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, followed by Debussy’s Estampes and Gargoyles by Lowell Liebermann; after intermission it was a Schubert Impromptu (G flat major from the first set, Op. 90) and Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12.

From the initial runs of the Chromatic Fantasia, Ms. Yang’s two winning qualities were apparent: a penchant for exciting, driven interpretations; and a wide dynamic and tone-color palette, from which she created constant interest in what she played. (To these two might be added a third, more obvious quality – a brilliant technique.) Ms. Yang achieved a wonderful array of textural effects in the first section (the “fantasy” of the title), sometimes imitating the brusque style of the harpsichord (whose strings are plucked rather than struck), other times sounding more like the subdued, dark resonance of an organ heard from outside a church. Whenever melodically generous or rhythmically impulsive – or polyphonic and complex, as in her commanding reading of the fugue – Ms. Yang was in her element. The program was well-tailored to her strengths, but there were sections in the Bach (and later the Debussy) where Ms. Yang sounded a bit unsure. Here, the music seemed to be floating in time, and needed either to be molded into speech-like patterns (as in the recitativo bits of the Bach) or allowed to hover, remaining totally abstract (Debussy). These were the only stretches that suggested a dimension was missing from her artistic personality.

Following the Bach, Ms. Yang took up the microphone for the first of two spoken asides to the audience. If sometimes meandering and not always terribly edifying, her words and thoughts did reflect a deep love for this music and a strong desire to make her audience appreciate it as well. She encouraged listeners to hear “resonances” between the drastically different pieces, which I find at least as effective as the typical “themed” concert; when allowed to speak for themselves, works of music usually speak truths more meaningful than can be encapsulated in a hackneyed theme.

Estampes, with its evocative titles, creates three vastly different atmospheres. (Debussy hated the label of “Impressionist”, and indeed, his level of focus is too broad to fit the definition – “Scenist” or “Aurist” might be better.) Ms. Yang brought out the sensuous nature of “Pagodes” (“Pagodas”) with a luxurious sound and strong characters. “Soirée dans Grenade” (“Evening in Granada”) and “Jardins sous la pluie” (“Gardens in the Rain”) had the same upside, but suffered a bit of impatience. Here, and throughout the evening, faster passages were sometimes too fast for the live acoustic of Bass Hall; slightly slower (and therefore more aurally comprehensible) tempi would have in fact been more exciting.

Ms. Yang’s performance of Gargoyles was engaging and made a strong case for this work and its composer, both of whom were likely unfamiliar to many in attendance. Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961) is one of America’s most prominent living composers, and his output includes a great deal of music for the piano. Gargoyles is (relatively) frequently programmed as a showpiece, and Ms. Yang was implacable in the virtuosic outer movements (Presto and Presto feroce, respectively). Her talents for color and textural definition brought the inner two movements to life in what was her most successful piece in this first half.

After a sensitive reading of the Schubert Impromptu and additional spoken remarks, Ms. Yang settled in for the Schumann set of Fantasiestücke. She claimed him as her “absolute favorite” composer, and her playing revealed a mature grasp of his style. Of the myriad characters present, Ms. Yang was most effective (as in the other works) in the stormy, upbeat, hyper-Romantically sensitive ones. A bit more poise (for the “poet” character implicit in this set’s “Ende vom Lied,” and explicit in Schumann’s Kinderszenen, for example) would have balanced the whole work a little better, but on the whole this was a wonderful performance. Ms. Yang took great care to endow all silences between pieces with meaning – a little more time here to revel in the serenity after “Des Abends,” a little more imperious there to set a scarier scene in “In der Nacht.”

For yet another contrasting style, Ms. Yang played Earl Wild’s transcription of “The Man I Love” for an encore. Her Gershwin had just enough sentiment and – perhaps from the fatigue of an entire recital program – brought things to a calm conclusion.

***11