Ann Schein is one of the most impressive — if relatively unsung — pianists in America, so her recital at the National Gallery of Art’s West Garden Court on Wednesday was a distinct and all-too-rare pleasure. The concert was part of a Gallery series built around Cecelia Porter’s new book, “Five Lives in Music: Women Performers, Composers, and Impresarios from the Baroque to the Present” — which devotes a chapter to Schein — and Porter, a music critic who writes for The Washington Post, was on hand to plug the book and introduce the pianist.
The introduction never really got to the heart of what makes Schein’s playing so compelling and full of character. But perhaps only the music can do that, and, as quickly became clear in Maurice Ravel’s elegant “Sonatine,” there’s little question that Schein is a pianist of the first rank. Probing, insightful, balancing delicacy with great power, Schein turned in a performance that shimmered with light, with a kind of effortless naturalness in every note. You could not wish for more.
Schein is in her 70s now, but her technique shows little sign of fading. And even the thickest musical tangles of Claude Debussy’s “L’isle joyeuse” came off with impeccable clarity. Debussy wrote the piece at the start of a love affair, and Schein captured its intoxicating, even rapturous spirit in a reading that never lacked for excitement. Chopin’s Piano Sonata #3 in B minor, which closed the program, was just as vivid but even more complex and nuanced, from the glittering Scherzo to the quiet pathos of the Largo to the surging Finale. Schein turned in a deeply integrated and thoughtful performance and rewarded the standing ovation with a quiet and understated encore, Chopin’s posthumous Etude in A flat Major.