Slender, with a handsomely craggy face, his flowing hair nearly shoulder-length, Dmitri Ratser seems to belong to another time, a Romantic time. And for half of his Chopin/Liszt program, Thursday at Ambassador Auditorium, the Russian pianist performed as one would therefore expect: with extravagant flair, with demonic impact.
Indeed, to deliver all this, he called on an arsenal of technique that arguably knows no limits and flung himself bodily into the music, ending any sense of separation between it and the re-creator.
But the brisk stride onstage also signaled a will to be his own man--even at the risk of what some might call serious distortion.
Such was the case with his Chopin group: reflective, inward, ephemeral miniatures that others customarily bathe in poetic simplicity. Two mazurkas emerged somewhat strange, but Ratser especially turned a familiar waltz on its head.
At times he struck the keys with a hardness that bespoke a 20th-Century sensibility, hammering away in some foreign, Bartokian language. The A-minor Waltz was marked with extreme rubato in some passages, speeding up maniacally and suffering a deliberate lapse of synchrony between hands.
None of it, however, was less than interesting.
By the time the pianist arrived at the B-minor Scherzo, he seemed to have his over-the-top material in hand, allowing its furies to break off and collide with each other.
But this was just a warm-up for the Lisztian half, dominated by the mighty B-minor Sonata. Ratser's performance took one's breath away--with its mesmerizing single-mindedness, its inexorable force, its stunning virtuosity.
What's more, he made every detail coherent to the drama and a thing of profound import. There was even graphic evidence--his thrown-back head and, at the finale, his torso collapsing into the single bass note struck. After the F-minor "Transcendental" Etude, he flew up from the piano, then granted a single encore: Rachmaninoff's C-sharp-minor Prelude.