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Perahia Plays the Three B's

Murray Perahia:

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Chopin Ballades

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Schubert Impromptus

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Brahms op. 118

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Chopin Etudes
No one who loves the piano would have missed Murray Perahia's sold-out recital on Sunday afternoon in the Music Center at Strathmore, sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society. Perahia had to cancel his 2006 WPAS recital, because of renewed pain from a thumb injury in the 1990s that nearly ended his career. Indeed, Jens worried that we might never hear Perahia play again. Happily, there he was, modest and unassuming, bowing politely and then sitting at the Steinway for a survey of music from his past triumphs and favorite composers. The joy of listening to Perahia is not only for his virtuosity, still in those hands if slightly faded, but in the endlessly subtle shading of each phrase and note.

The concert opened with Bach, music that some Perahia fans do not think suits him, but these ears have been fans at least since hearing his take on the Goldberg Variations, one of the best versions on piano. In this case, it was a stylistically sensitive performance of the fourth keyboard partita (D major, BWV 828). Although there were a few nervous-making finger slips in the dotted section of the French ouverture first movement, the fugal section was brisk and crisply marked, with a confident, lute-like rolled chord at the end. The Allemande had a languid, porcelain sheen to it, but the Sarabande had a strong pulse. Rather than slowing down the entire Sarabande (as in the recording by Cédric Tiberghien), Perahia singled out the quirky intonation with tail of the first couple bars of each section, slowing it down, letting it unwind but immediately resuming the pulse afterward. (The way that music is written -- the high tessitura, the fivelet or sixlet that trails upward to nothing -- disconnect it from what follows.) The sprightly Courante made a jagged gesture of the bubbling main rhythmic motif (groupings of two sixteenth notes and one eighth note), and the Gigue was an impressive tour de force, its B section treated like a rattling moto perpetuo.

Other Reviews:

Allan Kozinn, It’s Familiar but Just a Little Different (New York Times, November 6)

Tim Page, Murray Perahia's Truly Grand Piano (Washington Post, October 30)

Andrew Patner, Murray Perahia brings passion to recital (Chicago Sun-Times, October 23)

Melinda Bargreen, Recital showed the hands' facility and the heart's passion (Seattle Times, October 18)

R. M. Campbell, Perahia returns in first-rate form (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 17)

Robert Coleman, Pianist woos next generation of fans (Salt Lake Tribune, October 15)
A Beethoven sonata, no. 15 or op. 28 ("Pastoral"), had a first movement that seemed just on the slow side of Allegro. Perahia has a way of grasping form in sound, as in his skillful handling of the false return to the recap here, with its major and minor statement played not like a joke but as if tenderly savoring a beloved memory. His left hand gave a crisply defined walking bass sound to the opening of the second movement, with playful variations of the theme later. The third movement was a bouncy reading of the concise but fun scherzo and trio, while the fourth movement started out gently but ended with a ferocious coda, like a dance that turned savage.

While the first half was technically strong after a momentarily uncertain opening, Perahia did seem to tire toward the end of the second half of this rather long program. The Brahms op. 118 was played with all of the passion kept under wraps, a great way to play this composer. Having removed most of the sentimental varnish, Perahia allowed the tempo to roll along without too much rubato, even in the crushingly beautiful A major intermezzo. (A young pianist plays the piece in this YouTube video in a master class, with Perahia looking over her shoulder!) There were moments of forthright solidity (the ballade), spidery wispiness (the F minor intermezzo), and mysterious ambiguity (the troubling conclusion of the E-flat minor intermezzo).

The concluding Chopin set was troubled by more than a few finger slips in the two etudes, problems delineating the melody of the Aeolian harp (op. 25/1) and a torrent on the edge of firm control in the C# sharp minor (op. 10/4). The third ballade was much more to Perahia's strength in voicing, not without some flaws but with a balletic slow section. Two encores seemed to revive Perahia, first the tangled dreams of Schumann's Traumes Wirren (from Fantasiestücke, op. 12/7) and, most impressively, the crystal cascade of Schubert's E-flat impromptu (op. 90/2), shown in the YouTube video below.

The next WPAS classical concert will feature cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Kathryn Stott, including sonatas by Schubert, Shostakovich, and Franck (November 12, Kennedy Center). The next recital in the Piano Masters series will feature Gabriela Montero, including some of her famous improvisations (December 15, Sydney Harman Hall).

Franz Schubert, Impromptu in E-flat (op. 90/2),
played by Murray Perahia

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