The physical connection between pianist and piano takes varied forms. Some pianists press deep into the keyboard for an organ-like sonority; some seem to pull the vibrations of the strings into their hands. But in Lise de la Salle’s excellent Celebrity Series concert on Saturday - the French pianist’s Boston recital debut - the focus of energy was the point of contact between finger and key. The effect was both vintage, foregrounding a clavichord-like primacy of touch, and modern, clarity as an illusion of objectivity.
Maurice Ravel’s “Miroirs’’ was bright, busy, transparent, less a wash of sound than a precisely crosshatched etching. The moths’ wings in “Noctuelles’’ rustled close-up and percussive; “Une barque sur l’océan’’ evoked the busy glint of light off the wave’s surface more than its deep roll. Relying on fast, even passagework, de la Salle often eschewed the sustain pedal; “Alborada del gracioso’’ had a guitar’s dry jangling. But elsewhere, the pedal was held down for the illusion of echoing distance, faraway birds’ cries in “Oiseaux tristes’’ or the tolling in “La vallée des cloches.’’
It brought out the neoclassical formality intrinsic to Ravel’s music; interestingly, it also located a similar quality in Ravel’s more Romantic forebear Claude Debussy. In a set of six of Debussy’s “Préludes,’’ de la Salle translated Impressionistic images into crisp, discrete pianistic language. “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’’ conjured a cool, brisk atmosphere; the winter landscape of “Des pas sur la neige’’ was even more austere and frozen than usual.
The all-Beethoven second half emphasized that composer’s flair for musical inexorability. The E-flat major “Les Adieux’’ Sonata (Op. 81a) played the piano’s decay off its athletic demands: the horn-call opening drifting into silence, slow melodies sharply drawn but tenuous, fast sections saturated with attacks, raging against the dying of the sound. The opening of the familiar C-sharp minor “Moonlight’’ Sonata (Op. 27, No. 2) found a quietly tense equilibrium between momentum and emphasis; the finale amplified that contrast, rubato sentiment repeatedly swept away by bursts of impacable speed.
Encores were dialectically paired off: a high-octane “Presto’’ from Bach’s Italian Concerto chased by Chopin’s posthumous C-sharp-minor Nocturne, lucid and icy; “Montagues and Capulets,’’ from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,’’ heavy and glittering and dark as a lump of uranium, balanced by a guileless reading of Schumann’s “Von fremden Ländern und Menschen.’’ It was a soft landing after flights of fierce, tactile thoughtfulness.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.