One of the most broadly useful services the Portland Conservatory of Music provides is its Noonday Concerts, a series of free recitals by faculty members and students, every Thursday at 12:15 p.m. The concerts run about 40 minutes, and though they are weighted toward classical music, the schedule also includes trace amounts of jazz, folk and world music.

Most of the concerts – including pianist Diane Walsh‘s recital, which opened the series – are at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church. This year, the concert on the third Thursday of every month will be at the Portland Public Library.

Walsh gave thoughtful accounts of three works from the heart of the classical repertory, all substantial, yet short enough to fit into the series format. She began with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp major (Op. 78), a two-movement work that covers considerable ground in its 10-minute span, its opening Adagio cantabile movement blossoming from a chorale-like chord progression into a brawny, sometimes brash expansion, and its playful Allegro vivace finale challenging the pianist to balance humor and showmanship.

Walsh used the church’s relatively intimate proportions and comfortable acoustics to fine effect, giving a relaxed but precise performance in which textures were admirably transparent and dynamics were carefully nuanced. That control could be a double-edged sword, at times. It did wonders for the wit in Beethoven’s finale, but there were moments in the opening movement when you expected a greater measure of Beethovenian gruffness – when the music strained against the polite orderliness of Walsh’s interpretation.

Walsh’s closing work, Chopin’s Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major (Op. 47) also seemed restrained, at times, but it became clear toward the end of the performance that this was a matter of pacing: Walsh gradually loosened the reins as the work unfolded, and by its final pages, its underlying passions were entirely clear.

She was at her best, though, in Debussy’s “Images, Book I,” a set of three pieces in which suppleness and nuance are crucial. The irony in these, and in Debussy generally, is that the softer the focus, the more vivid the music’s implicit imagery. In “Reflets dans l’eau,” which opened the set, Walsh produced Debussy’s harmonically nebulous washes of sound and gentle, pastel tone colors with a deftness and flexibility that yielded a clear vision of the water (if not the specific reflections) that the composer hoped to capture.

The remaining two movements are more abstract. “Hommage à Rameau,” for example, scarcely evokes the French Baroque composer to whom Debussy is paying tribute, although it borrows the contours of a Baroque dance form, the sarabande. Yet its calm, delicate surfaces suggest a more philosophical reflection on the history of the distinctive Gallic style, which Debussy – like Rameau before him – had revolutionized. And “Mouvement” is an Impressionistic perpetual motion piece, in which Walsh met the challenge of suggesting energy and drive, without sacrificing the soft edges of Debussy’s style.

As an encore, Walsh gave a spirited, bright-edged performance of a Schubert “Moments Musicaux (Op. 94, No. 3).

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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