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Friday, April 3, 2015

Concert Review: The Piano and the Pedagogue

Murray Perahia returns in recital at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The pianist Murray Perahia returned to Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night.
Photo © Sony Classical
Born in the Bronx, pianist Murray Perahia occupies a special place in the heart of New York audiences. The artist returned to Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night, offering a scholarly, conservative program that could have doubled as a history of the development of the keyboard in 18th and 19th century Europe. A regular at Lincoln Center, this was Mr. Perahia's first concert under Carnegie's aegis since 2013, when Hurricane Sandy forced his recital to be moved to that venue's Avery Fisher Hall.

Mr. Periahia began (as all keyboard history lessons probably should) with Bach. Here, the French Suite No. 6 served as a gateway work to the rest of the program, which examined the development of piano technique and composition over the period of more than a century. Playing Bach on a piano is always a tricky business--the composer worked in the era before keyboard instruments could increase in volume with added key pressure. This is the last of Bach's French Suites a series of elegant dances with no opening Prelude.

The opening Allemagne had the keyboardist lifting his hands in the air for light but powerful key-strikes. Indeed, his fingers seemed to cavort in the air in the negative space between notes before striking sweet, clear tone from the piano. Emotion finally emerged in the central Sarabande, the Spanish dance having real pathos with its slower, more thoughtful tempo. The final Gigue was pure, blazing speed. With very spare use of pedal and perfect control of note lengths, this was painstaking Bach that never sounded clinical or forced.

Next up, Haydn's A Flat Sonata, the work which marked the piano sonata's evolution from amuse-bouche to a proper and satisfying entrée. Although this sonata has Haydn's customary wit, it is shot through with serious emotions in the course of its three movements. Mr. Perahia played the large-scale opening sonata form with seriousness of purpose, accentuating this music's ability to carry dramatic angst. The slow movement was potent and poetic, with Haydn's two thematic ideas arguing between the keyboardist's hands. The finale raced to its finish, bravura technique facilitating the rapid interplay of notes.

The first half of the recital ended with Beethoven's E Flat Sonata (nicknames Les Adieux), one of the composer's most emotionally fraught works. It was composed in the shadow of war in Vienna as Napoleon threatened, and is one of the composer's best pieces of pure programmatic music contained in strict classical form. However, Mr. Perahia played this famous programmatic music with an emphasis on the technical and clinical sides of the piece. Although there were gorgeous passages (the exposition in the first movement, the slow song of the central slow movement) this performance did not quite elevate itself to the heights of emotion that this sonata can bring forth.

The clinic continued in the second half with the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue of Belgian-born French composer Cesar Franck. Here, Franck cross-breeds the forms of baroque organ music with the pseudo-religious chromaticism of Wagner's Parsifal, creating a tripartite work that can come across as dull and stodgy. While Mr. Perahia is a determined and hard-working pianist, making the echoing, tolling bells of Montsalvat and the baroque, formal ideas of fugue work on the piano are beyond the powers of even his prodigious fingers.

The concert ended with Chopin's Scherzo No. 1, a powerful and forceful example of this composer at his most expansive. Freed from the constraints of the Franck piece, Mr. Perahia tore into the opening pell-mell dance with new-found power, driving from his shoulders and playing this staccato rhythm with energy and drive. The middle section was potent and lyrical, underlining Chopin's gift for melody before the energy of the opening music returned for the final drive down the stretch. Two encores followed: Chopin's first Op. 15 Nocturne and Schumann's moving Traumes Wirren from the Op. 12 Fantasiestücke. In each work, Mr. Perahia sounded genial and relaxed. At last, school was out.

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