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Murray Perahia

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Brahms, Handel Variations / Opp. 118 and 119, M. Perahia

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Beethoven, Piano Sonatas, Opp. 26, 14, 28, M. Perahia
Murray Perahia's chosen repertoire has narrowed over the years into a set of rather specific specialties: finely tooled Bach, lesser Beethoven and Schubert sonatas, miniatures by Brahms, Schumann, or Chopin. For his latest Washington Performing Arts Society recital, heard on Sunday afternoon in the Music Center at Strathmore, the American pianist stuck close to this pattern, as he did for his recitals in 2009 and 2007. All of it was immaculately polished, with a few slips here and there, just to remind us that we were not listening to an engineered recording.

Perahia's Bach is generally among my favorite performances on piano, and based on this elegant rendering of the composer's fifth French suite, one hopes that a recording of all six French suites is in the works. Perahia studied the harpsichord quite intensively for two years, as he told an interviewer recently, using the instrument to help himself understand the Goldberg Variations when he was recording it. That work is heard in the clarity of articulation Perahia used in this piece, although he was not afraid to use the sustaining pedal or the full dynamic range of the modern instrument. Happily he avoided his one displeasing tendency in Bach, to take the Sarabande movement in an over-slow, mannered way, giving each of this suite's quirky inner dances a palette of unusual colors -- a perky Gavotte, with a buoyant bassoon-like solo in the left hand, a sprightly Bourrée, and a Louré more sporting than stately -- followed by a fanfare-like Gigue of trumpet motifs.

Beethoven's 27th sonata (op. 90, E minor) was mined for its stormy contrasts, with Perahia trading in his earlier subtlety for a hammered approach to all those sforzandi. It was an interesting pairing with a lesser Schubert sonata on the second half (D. 664, A major), which paired delicate first-movement themes with a thunderous development. The nostalgic second movement and the sense of mischief in the third gave plenty of opportunities to appreciate Perahia's range of touch at the keyboard. The best moments of the evening came in the op. 119 set of pieces by Johannes Brahms, a composer whose emotional reticence plays right into Perahia's strengths. The first intermezzo (B minor) was a little marvel, its often shocking dissonances gracefully given a wistful turn, all mournful interior contemplation, thoughts echoed in the other intermezzi. The closing rhapsody, given a heroic arrogance recalling Schumann's Davidsbündler, was an appropriately strong ending for the first half.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Murray Perahia at Strathmore (Washington Post, March 20)

John Heuertz, Murray Perahia at the Folly Theater (Kansas City Star, March 15)
Perahia is not one of my favorite Chopin players, although he gives this music plenty of charm, if not always enough power. The Polonaise in C-sharp minor (op. 26/1) was big and bold, with thickly applied rubato, while two smaller pieces -- the F-sharp minor prelude (op. 28/8) and C-sharp minor mazurka (op. 30/4) -- were more graceful than daring, the mazurka charmingly mercurial. The concluding work, the Scherzo in C-sharp minor (op. 39/3) was taken at a very fast tempo and was somewhat rash in character, appropriately enough, with some lovely colors of harp swooshes and other sounds in the middle section. Perahia pulled out one of his favorite -- and best -- encores, a tipsy and breathless Schubert impromptu (E♭ major, op. 90/2). A second encore, Chopin's C-sharp minor étude (op. 10/4), was launched at an overly optimistic tempo, again revealing this performer's assets as refinement and musical intelligence over power and virtuosity.

The next recital in the WPAS recital will feature violinist Mikhail Simonyan and pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine (March 31, 2 pm), in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

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