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Vanessa Pérez at the Venezuelan Embassy

Equipped with high praise from Claudio Arrau, Vanessa Pérez came to the Venezuelan Embassy's Bolivarian Hall (at the Ambassador's Residence on Massachusetts Avenue) on February 11 to perform Ravel, Albéniz, Chopin, and a work by Arturo Sandoval. In front of the baby W.M. Knabe & Co.—producing a big enough sound for the small hall, but also source of a vast array nasty noises, almost wrecking the excellent performances—was a folding chair (a bench, as it turned out, was available, but not wanted) and therefrom the things (pardon the bad pun) unfolded promisingly.

Hunching over the keyboard as though sniffing for color in the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales by Ravel, Mlle. Pérez was called upon to conjure muscular outbreaks as well as sweet lingering, and she obliged fully. I don’t want to keep beating up on the piano, especially given the bad shape it is already in, but the twangy tone, sustained passages that turned glassy, strings gently out of tune and Vanessa Pérez's own shuffling noises (or was it a noisy pedal release?) were a shame. Alas, a new piano, I was told, is planned for the near future.

available at AmazonPresenting Vanessa Perez,

available at AmazonF.Chopin, The Complete Preludes,
Vanessa Perez

Albéniz's third book of the Iberian suite is rarely recorded and even less often heard in performance, and so it was particularly nice to see it lurking on the program. Its three parts, El Albaicín, El polo, and Lavapiés, I last heard with Marc-André Hamelin in the NGA (see my review from last January). The work may have taken the instrument to its limit, but not the pianist as Mlle. Pérez brewed up a musical storm.

It became clear, rather quickly, why the late Arrau, the elder statesman among pianists, had ascribed to her a "technique, musicality, and intelligent approach to the music [that] made a profound impression on me." If that was 15 years ago, she has since not lost any of these abilities but, if anything, gained more. Albéniz allowed her to shine through all the little obstructions of her environment and despite (or because of) her posture—half Glenn Gould, half Wicked Witch of West though, if it must be said, a very attractive witch—it left with a most favorable impression, lasting at least until I next hear these pieces performed. Her fingerwork in Lavapiés was envy-evoking fleet and never sacrificed expressiveness at the altar of note-perfect playing.

In the second half of the fascinating match-up of "Pérez vs. Knabe," the playing field was Chopin's three ballades. Played in a manner more reminiscent of Liszt than the (faulty, in my opinion) image of Chopin as the wilting, delicate flower. Ballade No. 1 was taken in storm—my preference, anyway. Ballade No. 3 was still in my head with Maurizio Pollini, who gave a ravishing account of it a few months ago at the Kennedy Center (see Ionarts review), making the first half, with its lilting, limping leaps of sixths of Mlle. Pérez's a bit tame in comparison. But if there was any timidity (and it was a rather gentle rubato used here, to delightful effect), it was all gone in one of the more helter-skelter endings that I have heard. The effect was immense, and incorrigible applause the consequence. My fears that any Chopin might pale in comparison to the outstanding Albéniz were unfounded, and if there was any criticism, it might be leveled against a slightly heavy sustaining pedal.

The announced Arturo Sandoval (Sureña) was then tossed out for a work by a Venezuelan composer (whose name, vaguely recalled, did not match with any composers I know of) and his Venezuelan dance that bubbled along joyously, dotted by tempestuous passages.