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Monday, March 26, 2012

Concert Review: The Keeper of the Keys

Murray Perahia in recital at Lincoln Center
by Paul Pelkonen
Piano man: Murray Perahia. Photo © 2010 courtesy Sony Classical.
In the course of a long concert season, some recitals and concerts are akin to a religious ceremony. Such a one was Sunday's afternoon concert at Avery Fisher Hall, featuring Bronx-born pianist Murray Perahia. The lights of this great hall were down very low, creating an atmosphere of religious contemplation. A celestial beam lit the stage, as New York's own high priest of solo piano music strode to his instrument.

As a hometown hero with impeccable taste and technique, Mr. Perahia is beloved by New York concert-goers. Yet he has earned their frustration as well, with a series of cancellations and health problems stemming from a 1995 operation to remove a bone spur from his right hand. This forced him to retire from performance for three years. Those physical problems, coupled with the artist's ongoing residency in Berlin have conspired to make a recital by this artist a special event.

The repertory for this recital was conservative, with the three "B's" (J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms) in the first half and Chopin and Schubert in the second. Mr. Perahia began with No. 5 of Bach's French Suites, his hands performing a complex terpsichore on the keys through the seven dance movements. The closing Loure and Gigue were lyric and uplifting, a strong argument for performing this music on the modern instrument.


Beethoven wrote his piano sonatas for the wood-framed fortepiano of his day, destroying a few in the process. The 27th Sonata in E minor is one of his most unconventional. Consisting of just two movements, its tense opening and cheerful Rondo are testaments to the composer's volatile personality. Mr. Perahia's playing was conservative, focusing on the deep humanism of the writing and the composer's gift of phrase.

The first half of the program ended with Brahms' late Klavierstücke--four piano miniatures from the composer's late period. Mr. Perahia announced Brahms' solemn presence through the cascade of heavy chords that open the first Intermezzo. From there he turned to warm, glowing melodies, leading a gorgeous waltz in the middle section of the second piece.

Mr. Perahia's recent releases have included a disc of Brahms works, and his affinity for the composer's complex scheme and variations showed in the third Intermezzo, a kind of scherzo based on just four notes. Finally it was time for the vast, cinematic sweep of the Rhapsody in E Flat Major, which ends the set with a noble theme borrowed six years later by Brahms' friend Jean Sibelius for his tone poem Finlandia.

The second half opened with Schubert's Sonata No. 19 in A, a work of sunny optimism with none of the obsession with death that plagued this young composer in his later years. Mr. Perahia made the sunlight of Schubert's Vienna shine into the dark cavern of Avery Fisher Hall, playing the three movements with lyric grace. The Andante flowed smoothly from his fingers, and the final movement had a fierce, determined joy.

That ferocity and determination extended to the four Chopin works chosen by Mr. Perahia to end the concert. This ws not the simpering, soft Chopin of the salon, but music of a brusque, business-like determination. The C# minor Polonaise had a heroic swagger, its dance rhythms etched by the soloist in bold strokes. The murderously difficult Prelude No. 8 in F# minor followed. A tiny two-minute beast among the composer's 24, its nickname is "Desparation." Mr. Perahia kept a cool head and executed the tricky right-hand figures with his customary skill.

The Mazurka No. 4 is just three minutes in length. Mr. Perahia showed that this brief work is packed with musical ideas and expressive possibilities. The little tetralogy ended with the muscular Scherzo No. 4, the last of the set. Mr. Perahia returned to Chopin's heroic mode here. The brash opening theme gave way to a slow, sad minor. The work ended with a mighty struggle to return to the major key. Mr. Perahia injected a note of triumph and achievement into the resonant final chords.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.