Perahia Lets the Glow Come Through

United StatesUnited States Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin: Murray Perahia (piano), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 20.2.2013 (HS)
Bach: French Suite No. 4
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 23 “Appassionata”
Schumann: Papillons
Chopin: Nocturne in B major, No. 1
Étude in A-flat major, Opus 25, No.1
Étude in E minor, Opus 25, No.5
Étude in C-sharp minor, Opus 10, No.4
Scherzo No. 2


A rapt audience filled the 3,000-plus seats of Davies Hall in San Francisco for pianist Murray Perahia Thursday evening. As in his arresting recital some 14 months ago in Berkeley (across the bay), the repertoire consisted of composers who could qualify as a Mount Rushmore of keyboard music. Perahia delivered soft-focus Bach, dramatically dynamic Beethoven, deceptively quirky Schumann and Chopin without the showing-off—plus a little show-off Schubert for an encore.

The program of mostly familiar music trained a spotlight on various aspects of Perahia’s prodigious pianism. He can articulate complex music with the best, almost always preferring a warm, burnished sound over crystalline precision. Rather than try to put his own stamp on the music, Perahia prefers to channel the composer’s through-line and emotional core, whether it’s coaxing out a telling inner melody usually submerged in the texture, or lavishing detail on phrasing to frame a moment beautifully.

For all those reasons the highlight for me in this lineup was Beethoven’s “Appassionata.” Every would-be pianist has taken a stab at this work, so we are all familiar with its ins and outs. Rather than offering a challenging interpretation, he hewed close to Beethoven’s score, not surprising as Perahia has been at work on a project to edit the Beethoven piano sonatas for the Henle Urtext Edition.

The shading of dynamics and phrasing pretty much emerged as Beethoven wrote them. The magic was in a palpable sense of inevitability as the music unfolded. Perahia caught the surges as deftly as he expressed the sense of anticipation in the opening pages.

The second movement’s set of variations of a chorale-like theme unfolded in an unhurried Andante con moto. As the ornamentation increased, it felt as if the music was adding layers of clothing without losing momentum, but also without putting too much emphasis on the elaborations. They just unfolded.

The finale, Allegro non troppo, emphasized the swirling perpetual motion theme without belaboring it. The spinning line seemed to root itself and then spread like a vine. The climactic finish couldn’t have been more exciting.

As assiduously as Perahia hewed to what we expect, and dearly hope for, in a Beethoven piano sonata, he applied much more pedal to Bach French Suite No. 4, shaping the phrases with more legato than we are accustomed to hearing these days. He also rearranged the order of the seven dance movements from the sequence given in the program, moving the expansive Gavotte one spot back from its usual position as the centerpiece of the suite. This is not uncommon. Glenn Gould did it in his recording. It created a longer sense of anticipation through the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and gentle Menuet. After a dramatic reading of the Gavotte, the Air provided a moment to take a breath, and thence to the bouncy Gigue to finish.

One of my favorite recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is Perahia’s, which dates from 2000, shortly after his return to performing after repeated physical problems sidelined him for several years. He has said that he turned to Bach for his own pleasure during his enforced hiatus. The sprightliness, dance-like delicacy and sheer musicality on the Goldberg recording seems to have led him to these softer outlines. He had less rhythmic point and used more pedal, both in this recital and the previous one in Berkeley. I’m not a fan.

Schumann and Chopin, however, seem to be right in his wheelhouse. The dozen miniatures that make up Schumann’s Papillons emerged under his fingers with their abrupt transitions intact. Their perplexing variety twisted the kaleidoscope every 30 seconds or so to reveal a new set of colors and a new design. There’s also a lot more playing in octaves that one might expect in something meant to call to mind butterflies. But Perahia managed to maintain the deftness.

The Chopin set started with the Nocturne in B Major Op. 62 No. 1, painting a dreamy, misty night landscape. The three études that followed showed how formidable technique can step out of the way and let real music glow through. This led up to a rousing, even monumental, conclusion, the famous Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor. He set the tone by amping up the dramatic contrasts between the quick, quiet opening gestures and the broad explosions that follow, turning the corner to catch all of the sprawling soaring endless melody.

A single encore, Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90 No. 2, was the same piece he finished with in Berkeley last time. He played it with equal flair, its quietly coruscating opening phrases ultimately heading to the kind of muscular climaxes that earn standing ovations.


Harvey Steiman