Thursday, April 2, 2009

Perahia's classic piano

This season Celebrity Series has been hosting an extraordinary procession of concerts by leading pianists, via the Aaron Richmond Recitals endowed by Nancy Richmond Winsten and Dr. Joseph Winsten. These recitals, which have been spaced only a few weeks apart, have in effect allowed Boston to sample the surprising breadth and depth of classical piano performance today (the series continues with Krystian Zimerman next week). Keyboard playing runs in my family (and became my brother's profession), so I've been keeping up with this program assiduously.

Its latest "installment," as it were, was a performance by the much-admired Murray Perahia (above left), who offered the kind of program you might have expected Leonard Bernstein to have put together years ago to "introduce" the piano to America on TV. Perahia opened with the famous first Bach partita, followed by an equally familiar Mozart sonata, which led to Beethoven's "Appassionata." He then devoted the entire second half of the concert to the less famous, but hardly obscure, Brahms "Variations on a Fugue by Handel" (his single encore was a Schubert Impromptu). So the program felt a bit like an installment of "Western Music's Greatest Hits" (with the Brahms itself operating as a mini-recapitulation of those hits, as it touches base with a series of earlier musical styles). But maybe that was the whole idea, for Perahia seems to have inherited (consciously or unconsciously) a certain kind of artistic mantle. He isn't out to prove the validity of a novel approach, like say Angela Hewitt, nor he is out to wow us, like Lang Lang. I think if anything he is out to simply remind us of the deep beauty of these works, as interpreted by the classic tradition.

Certainly he comes off as a sincere musical devotee. He's an elder statesman of the instrument by now, but hasn't developed any kind of romantic stage profile, and indeed seems almost diffident under the spotlight. (The idea of signature sneakers or hairstyle, à la Lang Lang, seems simply impossible.) And of course his career has survived the injury of his right hand in the 1990s, which kept him away from performing for years (a period during which he remained immersed in piano music nonetheless). It's always hard to point to what precisely in a musical performance leads to the impression of depth of experience lying behind this or that cluster of notes, but whatever this elusive essence is, Perahia's got it. Or has earned it, I should say.

Of course his signature has always been a sense of mature, classical balance, which was evident immediately in the Bach Partita, but the pianist insinuated a subtle tension into the Mozart Sonata in F major, hinting at a darker, pre-Romantic lyricism flowing beneath the work's bright surface. Interestingly, Perahia then held the storminess one might expect from the "Appassionata" in thoughtful check; this was a performance of deliberate exploration rather than passion, but it was compelling nonetheless, although here and there, alas, there was a certain blur noticeable in the faster passages.

The Brahms "Variations" - all 25 of them - are certainly a challenge, but to me are not all that emotionally compelling (they seem to me slightly pedagogical in nature). But they offer a startlingly wide range of tone and dynamic, and conclude with a monumental and commanding fugue. And Perahia seemed happier here than at any other point in the concert, and brought Brahms's grand vision to a ringing conclusion. Still, he looked slightly exhausted by the finale, and had to be coaxed into a single encore, the lightly meandering Schubert Impromptu in E-flat, which he imbued with a melancholy sweetness. The audience, which clearly was ready to listen to him all night, had to make due with this fond farewell.

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