San Francisco: Murray Perahia recital

Great Performers Series, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
Piano Murray Perahia
Johann Sebastian  Bach: French Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 815
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Opus 57, Appassionata
Robert Schumann: Papillons, Opus 2
Frederyck Chopin: Nocturne in B major, Opus 62, 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 in B-flat minor, Opus 31
February 20, 2014

From time to time the reviewer finds herself in a quandary: how to write a review that is honest while at the same time deferential to a legendary pianist whom she has admired for decades. It’s times like these that make the job of a music critic extremely difficult. Let me begin by offering you, the reader, an analogy of what last Thursday’s recital was like for someone who had spent her entire childhood and adolescence studying Mr. Perahia’s playing.
Imagine a favorite food from your childhood. You remember it as having a specific taste, scent, texture, mouth-feel; all these elements which contribute to a Proustian memory that you cherish and hold in the highest esteem. Then one day, after many years of being away from your home town, you return as an adult to seek out this favorite childhood treat. With unabated excitement you take your first bite, only to discover that’s it’s not how you remembered it. Something is not quite right. You question your taste buds and take a second bite, this time chewing more slowly, more deliberately, hoping you were wrong the first time. But no, there’s no question about it. Something is definitely off and with a heavy heart you realize that your beloved memory of what was is no more.Perahia started the evening with a respectable rendition of Bach’s French Suite No. 4 in E-flat major. While I’m of the opinion that the sustain pedal should not be used to play Bach, I was intrigued by Perahia’s pedal technique – a light, swift pulsing that made his pedal use almost indiscernible to the naked ear and did not at all muddy the sound. It was delightful watching him have fun with the Gavotte, grooving and rocking like Stevie Wonder, thoroughly enjoying himself.
As for the rest of the program, Perahia’s treatment of the Romantic repertoire was so unsentimental it bordered on aloofness. The mistakes, missing notes, and general sloppy keyboarding I can forgive (after detecting a slight hand tremor). However, the lack of feeling, rubato, and dynamic contrast throughout the evening left me uninspired. The absence of both dynamic and tempi contrast was especially apparent in Beethoven’s Appassionata and Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2. Not once did I marvel at Perahia’s pp, all of which could have been played much softer. There was no muscle behind the ffs and fffs either which was mostly finger and very little shoulder weight. His Appassionata was rather apathetic. He seemed eager to get to the end of the piece. At times I wanted to shout at him, “Take it easy; take your time! Linger here a bit longer!” Perahia did take some risk with a daring tempo in the third movement of the Appassionata while maintaining clarity, bringing the audience to its feet at the end of the first half of the program.
Perahia was rather heavy handed with Schumann’s Papillion, and the result was not as free-spirited and whimsical as one would expect of a piece mimicking the delicate flutter of butterflies from blossom to blossom. The Études bore no resemblance to his 2002 recording, a tour de force which I have committed to memory having listened to the collection well over a thousand times. I have always admired Perahia for possessing Pollini’s technical prowess, but with that extra shade of musical contour that made the music achingly beautiful. His nuanced phrasing back then gave his playing just the right amount of sentimentality without being mawkish. But sitting in the audience last Thursday evening at Davies Hall, what I heard was not Perahia’s best. Op. 25, No. 1 in A-flat was fluid, but not achingly beautiful and the top notes in the right hand did not connect in a way to make the melody sing a lyrical legato line. Op. 25, No. 5 in E minor lacked playfulness (“scherzando” as the composer asked for) in the Vivace while the left-hand melody of the Più lento did not carry enough weight and tenuto to contrast the gossamer leggiero of the right hand. Many in the audience gave Perahia a standing ovation, but I was not moved to my feet. It was a perfectly adequate performance, but this man was not the legendary Murray Perahia I had remembered and I could not help but feel a little sad leaving the concert hall. For his one encore Perahia offered his usual: a splendid Schubert  Impromptu Op. 90, No. 2. Photo Klaus Rudolph

One Comment

  1. Terri Stuart

    I wondered about the meaningless Standing O. It was all technique and no soul. Papillion could have been renamed Elefant. I was disturbed that I left uninspired and frankly, bored.

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