International piano competitions tend to breed a certain type of pianist: the virtuoso extrovert who attempts to play faster and louder than everyone else. Happily last year’s winner of the Dublin International Piano Competition, Nathalia Milstein, does not conform to this type at all. Though possessing a formidable technique, this sensitive and at times introverted French pianist showed herself to be much more concerned about the arching curve of the phrasing than by loud octaves.

The programme suited Milstein’s style very well: the first half allowed her to revel in the wistful poetry of Schumann while in the second half she caught the visceral qualities of Prokofiev’s music very well. Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2 was Milstein’s choice for the final of the competition and so it was not too surprising to find the entire second half (encores included) dedicated to this composer. If there were a shortcoming in relation to the programme though, it was its lack of variety and this might have been part of the reason for the meagre attendance last night.

From the opening of the Schumann’s Arabesque in C Op.18, Milstein shaped her phrases superlatively, with perfect gradation of sound, one phrase melting into the next. The E minor section was passionately heartfelt, the semiquavers flowing in a torrent around the melody. What impressed most in the dreamy postlude was the finely graded dynamics ending with an ethereal pianissimo.

The Fantasie in C major Op.17, like the Arabesque, was written at a turbulent time in Schumann’s life. Thwarted by his future father-in-law in his attempts to marry his beloved Clara, Schumann found an outlet for his feelings with this passionate piece. The opening explodes with pent up passion and Milstein launched herself into this with abandon though never losing the overarching sense of where the phrase was going. The deep fulsome sound of the initial ff was answered coyly with a delicate piano. The fiery development section was not entirely error free but Milstein kept the trajectory and sweep of the line clearly in mind. I was struck by the great sensitivity of colouring at the end where the D is suspended over the bass C, the sound hovering in the air before resolving inexorably to the tonic.

The second movement was the least satisfactory of the three. It has a wonderfully catchy and bombastic principal theme that needs to swagger about oozing confidence from every chord. Here Milstein’s more restrained style lacked the necessary oomph. While there is scope for pulling the tempo around, I was not convinced by the excessive rubato in the first subject nor by the darting dotted rhythm of the second subject. The middle section trio was delightfully mercurial as it flitted through a myriad of keys while the notorious coda with its treacherous leaps was executed with all the sure-footedness of a Chamonix goat. It was in the dreamy third movement that Milstein was truly in her element, pouring forth her soul in the rich noble harmonies that open this movement. The anguished interval of the compound minor 2nd was nothing short of magical before the diminished 7th resolves. There was a fine palette of tonal colourings on offer as the music turned from intense yearning to passionate outburst before dying completely away.

Prokofiev’s Ten pieces for piano, Op.12 were composed during his student days at the Moscow Conservatory and range from the ludic to the brusque, from the whimsical to the religious. Milstein selected just five pieces from the set. The humour was well caught in both the Marche and the Gavotte, while Milstein offered an impressionistic sound world in the Legend with its hymn-like theme. Given Milstein’s wonderful sensitive playing up until this, it was quite the shock to witness the raw, brutal energy of the Allemande with its disturbing harmonies and sharp staccatos that was to characterise so much of Prokofiev’s later style. The perpetuo moto of the final scherzo made for a spectacular ending.

The final work Sonata no. 6 in A major was written on the cusp of World War II and the mood reflects this general turmoil. Attacking the opening with gusto, Milstein captured the diaphanous colours before the pace gathered into an atonal dialogue. Intelligent as she is dexterous, she conveyed the irony inherent in the second movement while in the slow waltz of the third the fulsome sound of the powerful chords smashed through its dreamy opening. It was in the glistening final movement that Milstein revved up, injecting a sudden dose of high octane energy with sparkling fingerwork and agitated chords driving the music ever forward. But this was bravura of a disturbing kind – one that threatens rather than pleases – an accurate prediction of future world events.