Carnegie Hall’s stage is rarely as barren as it was Friday, when reclu-sive Brazilian music master Joao Gilberto held court alone, perched on a simple stool, his compact frame hunched over a plain acoustic guitar. On the other hand, the grand hall has rarely been more full — with both sound and emotion — as when the 70-ish Gilberto began plucking out his deceptively complex miniatures.
Arriving an hour late for this rare New York appearance — the delay was blamed on the presence of a presidential motorcade or the absence of the star’s glasses, locked in a hotel room next door — Gilberto didn’t take long to settle the crowd with his mesmerizing presence.
Gilberto cuts an unassuming figure onstage, seldom speaking or even making eye contact with his audience. It’s a testament to his prowess as a stylist that his songs, which on the surface offer little in the way of varia-tion, are so compelling. Over the course of his two-hour performance, the bossa nova innovator alternated between breezy trifles such as “One Note Samba” and “O Pato” and heartfelt paeans such as “Rosa Morena” and a version of Gilberto Gil’s “Eu Vim da Bahia.”
While he concentrated heavily on his past work — and still only touched on the career peaks — Gilberto also delved into his latest album, “Joao Voz e Violao,” his voice seldom rising above a whisper on stunningly nuanced versions of “Eclipse” and “Desde que o Samba e Samba.” And while Gil-berto rarely deviates too much from his recordings, his shaded instrumental inflections — cello-like harmonics and stolid thumb-plucked bass-string — made rapt attention or blissful drifting equally viable options.
With the exception of a marvelous, tropicalized version of Gershwin’s ” ‘S Wonderful,” Gilberto performed the entire set — which included a generous six-song encore — in his native Portuguese. That presented little problem, in small part because much of the audience was fluent in the language, but more significantly because virtually everyone in attendance shared in the lingual subtext: that of the heart.