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RACHMANINOFF SONATA SHOWS KONG TO FINE EFFECT

There's scarcely a performing artist worth his salt who doesn't have a trump card in his repertoire, a particular piece, or group of pieces, that shows him to especially fine effect.

For Xiang-dong Kong, I suspect it is the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Sonata. Not only did he use it to cap his semifinal round at the 1988 Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, from which he walked away with the gold medal - it also crowned his recital program Saturday at the Temple Square Assembly Hall. And, predictably, brought down the house.It does display him at his best. At this stage of his career he does not bring what might be called a natural reflectiveness to the slow movement. But elsewhere the softer sections had a fair amount of inwardness, contrasting affectingly with the ringing sonority of the rest. And that registered mightily, from the boldly proclamatory opening to the driving impulse of the finale (marked Allegro molto), here vividly projected.

It is the Horowitz version of this sonata Kong favors, pretty much a conflation of the 1913 original and Rachmaninoff's own later revision. But from the first Kong's sound had a weight not always evident in Horowitz's own performances, as well as a better balancing of inner voices.

I mention these things because they were not always evident in the rest of his program. For example, Beethoven's "Eroica" Variations, with which he began, boasted a welcome continuity between sections and a nicely singing quality. But the sound itself was almost unfailingly bright, with main voices sometimes emphasized at the expense of others.

The result was undeniably brilliant, especially in something like the staggered syncopations of the 10th variation. But not until the 15th, a semi-ruminative Largo, was there any real depth of sound, here giving way to a playful fugue, almost bell-like in its effect.

The same glint and firm rhythmic sense were apparent in three Debussy Preludes, most winningly in "Feux d'Artifice," here beautifully articulated. Again, though, subsidiary voices suffered in "Brouillard," here consciously impressionistic, and "La Peurta del Vino," for all its angularity, seemed a little bass-shy - i.e., it could have been much darker.

Against this came semi-wistful accounts of "June," "October" and "November" from Tchaikovsky's piano suite "The Months." Once again the emotional balance of the second (subtitled "Autumn Song") might have been a bit less contrived and the concluding "Sleigh Ride" a bit less metallic. But clearly the talent is there. At age 22, it just needs more maturing, and, like the Rachmaninoff, maybe a little more time to get under the pianist's skin.