In the course of giving a masterclass in Paris three years ago, Maria João Pires met a young French pianist named Julien Brocal. “I can say that I completely had a crush on her,” Brocal recalled in a recent interview, and the feeling was mutual. Pires invited him to join her Partitura Project, an effort to nurture and promote promising players. They now do occasional tours together as a duo, most recently in the US for two performances that included a stop in Cleveland.

In Reinberger Hall, the Cleveland Orchestra’s charming chamber music facility, it was easy to see what caught Pires’ attention. Brocal is a preternaturally talented pianist, one of those gifted players who has such absolute command of his instrument and material that he seems to play by instinct, not even looking at the keyboard much of the time. This frees him to concentrate on more sophisticated elements of interpretation – sound, color, phrasing, even orchestration.

But the strongest contrast of the evening was between two artists at opposite ends of their careers. If Brocal showed remarkable ability and poise for a 29-year old, Pires seemed tired and out of ideas, playing with a woodenness that bordered on boring. The disparity was so strong that by the end of the evening, one had to wonder if the wrong person received top billing.

The program opened with a four-handed version of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Brocal immediately established himself as the dominant voice, crisp, sensitive and perfectly transparent. Given his placement carrying the melody on the high end of the keyboard, that was perhaps to be expected. But Pires never quite meshed in a support role, with her lines bumping into Brocal’s rather than complementing them.

Left on his own, Brocal spun out a masterful version of Ravel’s Sonatine. His technical fluency was superb, hands flowing like water through even the most complicated runs. Even more impressive was the unique voice he brought to the piece, using nuanced phrasing and a lyrical touch to shape it like poetry. Intelligence, spontaneity, gripping dynamics, a wide stylistic range and intuitive sense of narrative – Brocal has all the tools, and knows how to use them.

His mentor returned to the bench for Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 31 in A flat major. Dry, uneven and forced, it did not sound like someone who has been playing professionally, to great acclaim, for more than 60 years. Pires seemed uncomfortable even in her posture, sitting back and playing from her forearms, putting too much weight on the keys. And the drop-off in tone was dramatic, as if Brocal had been using a palette of 120 colors, while Pires was willing to settle for 12. 

Brocal returned from intermission with another stylish take on Ravel, giving each of his five Miroirs a distinctive personality. He played them like a conductor, warming up the sound, turning it to ice, snapping off notes like a percussionist or giving them a moment to reverberate, using the hall itself as an instrument. It was like watching someone paint with music.

Pires got off to a more promising start with the finale, Beethoven’s Sonata no. 32 in C minor, playing with a bit more authority and energy. But it took an unfortunate turn in the third variation of the Adagio, which she played like boogie-woogie. Many pianists have remarked on the unusual rhythms of that passage, some even using the actual term “boogie-woogie” to describe them. Still, they can be played with more finesse than Pires’ bouncing, mechanical approach suggested.

In all, a fascinating evening, though not for the reasons anyone expected. Chances are, most of the audience came to hear Pires. But chances are, most of them left talking about her protégé.