IRVINE — Leonid Kuzmin is young, blond, blessed with almost delicate good looks and--as he proved at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Sunday afternoon--possessed of a startling technical facility and perspicuity.
In a recital sponsored by the Irvine Symphony, the Soviet pianist warmed up his audience with intelligently sensitive readings of Chopin's Nocturne in E-flat, Opus 55, No. 2, and six mazurkas. In these, as in the entire program of works by Chopin and Liszt, he applied rubato liberally. Usually, Kuzmin's tempo changes managed to stay within the boundaries of good taste, though the A-minor Mazurka, Opus 67, No. 4, emerged with the same disjointed quirkiness that infected Liszt's 12th Hungarian Rhapsody later.
No matter. This was an exciting concert, highlighted by a heart-on-the-sleeve delivery of Chopin's Sonata in B-flat minor. Yes, Kuzmin approached internal tempos with tremendous liberty. Yes, he pedaled with a bit too much zeal. Nevertheless, he offered a captivatingly powerful, risk-laden performance, full of hair-raising bravura.
Moreover, Kuzmin balanced breathtaking virtuosity with keen intelligence. He brought telling consideration to harmonic changes and clear, deftly shaped phrases to shifting voices. In the slower second theme of the Scherzo, he etched a thoughtful song.
Despite his technical prowess, this fair-haired boy did not submit to the type of mannerisms that his flamboyant program might have tempted. There was no staring into space, no flailing flourishes in crashing chordal sections. The pianist did not rise to his feet to emphasize powerful finishes.
Kuzmin just sat there. He sat calmly and eased accurately through the infamous octaves in Liszt's Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody. He performed the acrobatics of the Second Hungarian Rhapsody with unflappable security. And in between these seemingly effortless displays of fire, he conveyed a sense of plain old fun.
The three encores--a Scarlatti Sonata in D, Horowitz's "Carmen" Fantasy and "La Campanella"--formed strong reminders of the resemblance between this program and the typical choices of the late romantic great. Kuzmin is not Horowitz. His tone leans more toward warmth than brilliance. He cannot claim either the subtlety or the showmanship of his eccentric elder.
Still, he is 26, he is gifted and he will be worth watching.