By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
When the Philadelphia-born Peter Orth took first prize in the 1979 Naumburg International Piano Competition, he seemed poised for a major career. Since then he has played in recital halls and with orchestras around the world. Still, for whatever reasons, he has had more success in Europe than in his native country and has been living in Cologne, Germany, since 1992.
Mr. Orth has an ardent following in New York, though, as was clear from the enthusiastic reception that greeted his recital on Friday night at Zankel Hall, sponsored by the Hausmusik-Meet the Artist series. For his program Mr. Orth set the bar very high in many respects.
Beethoven’s Sonata in E (Op. 109) may be the most often played of his late piano works. Mr. Orth followed this with Chopin’s complete 24 Preludes, another formidable, though not uncommon, undertaking.
After intermission he took on the mighty Sonata in B minor by Liszt. In playing such monumental and familiar repertory, a pianist inevitably sets himself up for comparison with a great legacy of past performances.
Mr. Orth was most impressive in the Liszt, a notoriously difficult piece to bring off. Though called a sonata, this rhapsodic work is like some possessed and impulsive fantasy. Mr. Orth conveyed the music’s volatility while making the score seem one long, inevitable arc of inspiration. He dispatched the cascades of octaves and knotty passage work with command.
He does tend to play with very heavy-handed piano tone; even softer lyrical passages had a weighty, sometimes too thick substance. But his steely, crashing fortissimos were perfect for the Liszt. Frenzied climaxes came across with brassy orchestral fervor. That he can play with tenderness was clear during the sonata’s strangely ruminative passages, exceptionally well paced and shaped here.
Mr. Orth also gave a distinctive account of the Beethoven. While attentive to the work’s elusive structure, he captured its mysticism and fantasy. Once in a while a fugato episode or fortissimo outburst emerged with too much thumpy brashness for my taste. Still, this was a fine performance.
From piece to piece in his account of the 24 Chopin preludes, I went from being captivated by some fresh idea or wonderful color (the honest clarity of the whirling Prelude in G, the organic shape he brought to the banshee ride of the Prelude in F sharp minor) to being perplexed by some interpretive turn (the pummeling bluntness of the Prelude in G sharp minor).
In his encore, “The Maiden and the Nightingale” from Granados’s “Goyescas,” Mr. Orth was at his subtlest and most elegant.