Murray Perahia Lavishes Care on Classic Chestnuts

United StatesUnited States Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Chopin: Murray Perahia (piano), presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California at Berkeley. 11.3.2012 (HS)

A program of the three B’s (i.e., Bach, Beethoven and Brahms—plus some Schubert and Chopin) could be ripe for any sort of interpretation. But not from pianist Murray Perahia. He earns admiration not for his flashy technique—although he rarely misses a note—and especially not for any liberties he might take with the music. What he does, about as well as any pianist alive, is internalize the music totally, then bring it to life for us with generosity and taste.

Those attributes enlivened his recital Sunday at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, California. Aside from a few slight regrets over more pedal than one expects in music of the baroque and classical eras, the overall effect was to entice us into the composer’s world, not Perahia’s. In phrase after phrase he brought out details, executing some with precision, in others letting the sound unfurl more naturally. An image kept appearing in my mind as he played a remarkably rich set of Chopin works: a tapestry undulating in the breeze, glints of light highlighting different colors to punctuate the otherwise seamless fabric.

This was especially so in Beethoven’s Sonata No. 27 in E minor, a two-movement work that contrasts a stormy prelude with a poetic, gently loping finale in rondo form. Perahia captured the restlessness of the opening without overemphasizing any element. The lovely, almost Mozartean primary theme of the rondo came as a breath of air every time it returned, the pianist approaching its reappearance with a touch of hesitance.

A similar sense of antique-ness colored Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A major, which opened the second half. Serenity characterized the first movement, followed by a palpable sense of singing in the Andante, but the magic was in the finale. Rippling figures flowed organically against the tunes, the dancing rhythms pulsing ever so gently and the finish arriving with a sigh.

In contrast to this almost feminine touch of the Schubert, Chopin injected a certain level of testosterone, just enough to invigorate a well-chosen tour of the Polish composer’s forms. Things began with the Prelude in F-sharp minor, Op. 28 No. 8, providing a perfect example of how Perahia submerges technique for emotional clarity. The 32nd notes in the right hand (well, mostly in the right) could not have been more accurately placed and executed, but what emerged was a series of rippling waves, all of a piece as they rose and fell organically. It was the surging and ebbing, not the precision, that played on the emotions.

After a bit of a breather with the Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 30 No. 4, which almost felt like Debussy in its soft colorings, Perahia finished the program with the monumental Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39. The stormy opening zigged and zagged against deftly placed accents, but even the powerful octave scales managed to display flexibility and suppleness. The contrasting lyrical sections could not have been more graceful, and the quick runs with those parts seemed to cradle the music deftly.

The program opened with Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G major, which emphasized polish and sheen over rhythmic clarity. Any use of the pedal in Bach can blur the sound of a 10-foot grand piano in a hall as large as Zellerbach, and despite Perahia’s skill in understatement, the result was too often muddy. The Brahms Klavierstücke, Op. 119, surrounding the Beethoven, was a revelation in clarity and sonorous touch.

Perahia did some of his most inspired work in the encores, bursting into Chopin’s Polonaise in C-sharp minor, Op. 26 No. 1, with bravado tempered with agility. He also invested the Schubert Impromptu, Op. 90 No. 2 with more vigor than usual – as if he took off any restraints and just dived in – earning well-deserved standing ovations.

Harvey Steiman