When Mark Rossnagel moved to Portland from New York to pursue his graduate studies in piano at the University of Southern Maine, he did exactly what an enterprising young musician ought to do: He made himself a useful member of the city’s musical community.

Rossnagel became the music director of First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church and joined the university’s adjunct faculty. He played recitals, both as a soloist and as a vocal accompanist, and as the assistant conductor of the Oratorio Chorale he ended up leading a concert at the last minute when the choir’s director, Emily Isaacson, was about to give birth.

A musical man about town, you would spot him at concerts of all kinds, and he did not mind dispensing advice to music critics: Walking up the aisle after the slightly rocky first half of a performance, he stopped at a critic’s seat and said just two words – “be kind” – before moving on.

Early this year, Rossnagel returned to New York, but Portland is evidently still in his blood. On Friday evening, he returned to play a recital on the First Friday at First Parish series he started in 2015. His program, “The Singing Piano,” brought together works by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin, the concert’s title referring to the lyrical impulse that, Rossnagel wrote in his program note, runs through each of the scores.

It was easy for Rossnagel to make that case in his opening work, Bach’s “Capriccio On the Departure of a Beloved Brother” (BWV 992), a miniature cantata in instrumental form, with movement titles that describe the action: Bach and his friends first try to dissuade Johann Jacob Bach (the composer’s brother) from leaving home to take a post at the royal court in Sweden. After lamenting his imminent departure, they accept the inevitable and wish him a joyful journey. The closing fugue on the Posthorn melody – the tune that announced the arrival of the mail in Bach’s day – may have been Bach’s way of saying, “and don’t forget to write.”

Rossnagel brought out the implied voices in this light-spirited piece, and while he made free use of the piano’s flexible tone palette and dynamics – elements unavailable on the harpsichord, for which Bach wrote the work – he suggested Bach’s original textures through crisp articulation and graceful ornamentation.

Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor (Op. 23) suits Rossnagel’s theme as well. Though steeped in the showy but expressive keyboard technique of the early 19th century, it is built of the gently winding melodies in which Chopin excelled. Rossnagel phrased Chopin’s themes with a poetic lilt, but he also applied a fluctuating intensity that brought out the undercurrent of impetuousness that runs through this music.

The program’s two biggest works, Beethoven’s Sonata in E major (Op. 109) or Brahms’ “Variations on an Original Theme” (Op. 21, No. 1) are, even more than the Chopin, thoroughly founded on the techniques and sonorities of the keyboard, so Rossnagel had to work harder to put their singing qualities in the spotlight.

Still, he had a point, particularly in the Beethoven, a late work in which the composer poured out his passions, shuttling briskly between tragedy and defiance, introspection and extroversion. Rossnagel brought out those qualities expertly enough that you could acknowledge the degree to which the work suited his theme.

The most striking aspect of his Brahms performance was not so much the work’s lyricism – though you could hear it in some of the variations – as its virtuosic heft, which Rossnagel negotiated deftly. His performance also pointed up an interesting link to the Beethoven: The set’s chordal fourth variation mirrors the opening figure of the Beethoven sonata.

Organizing programs around conceptual themes can be fun. But showing connections between works composed decades apart is even better.

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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