Daniel Barenboim laughed at the suggestion that his Kimmel Center recital could be a balm amid his densely packed East Coast tour -

Tristan und Isolde

at the Met;


, the new Elliott Carter concerto, with the Boston Symphony; and a performance by his West-East Divan Orchestra at the United Nations.

But a balm is precisely what the

Petrarch Sonnets

sounded like Monday night in Verizon Hall. The hall was filled with aficionados, but those unfamiliar with Liszt's

Years of Pilgrimage: Book Two, Italy

may have been blown away by the hush. Contemplative stuff, these pieces, and he played them that way - inward, not outward. The pianist had laughed because of the music's difficulties, tricky figurations, trills, inner melodies - so tough to control what is extremely subtle, quadruple-quiet intimacies for 3,000 pairs of ears.

Had Chopin been listening in, he would have been envious, so easeful was Liszt's filigree, so economical, almost no motion to Barenboim's fingerwork. The playing expressed the poet's longing, without pathos, for his Laura. No. 104, the best-known, chases love's contradictions: ("I fear, yet hope: I burn, yet am turned to ice") as melodies blaze into view, cross over, disappear. No. 123 is a lesson in harmonic (if not earthly) grace. Book Two of

Years of Pilgrimage

(composed during the 1840s) is major Liszt. He was changing direction, finding the essence of a thing, the way J.M.W. Turner at the end of his life found the essence of light.

Positioned at the off-center concert grand, Barenboim, 66, looked an antihero in the bold spotlight - dramatic when the smallest cough is louder than the melody, and the tones in the huge hall are birdcalls. "St. Francis Preaching to the Birds" (from

The Legends) was composed in Rome during the last part of the composer's life, when he'd taken minor orders as a Franciscan. (He played it for the pope, too.) The score is still so daring in sound and structure, Messaien must have paid it allegiance. On and on, its energies, its beauties, and those trills, swell within finely graded levels of pianissimo.

The spell was broken, forcefully, with the

Fantasy quasi Sonata After a Lecture on Dante. All tumult and tempest, this masterpiece can use a maestro-pianist to steer. Yes, lapses, a messy passage or two, and the harshness Barenboim's pounding can produce: small price for subtlety and cohesion.

To end, Liszt's bread and butter:

Three Paraphrases on Operas of Giuseppe Verdi.

Fun to see the artist throw his torso into


for just one chord, his enjoyment of the lithe, bouncing tune, with its slashing interruptions. It followed the darkness of


"Miserere." Barenboim's


was perfect, the sacred dance and final duet as secret as Egyptian winds. It doesn't take a maestro-pianist to understand the genius of Franz Liszt, but Barenboim is both, and his art has genius. One encore, though the house wanted more: Schubert's wistful "F minor (No. 3)"

from the Moments Musicaux.