Monday, February 24, 2014

Murray Perahia Visits Vancouver

Pianist Murray Perahia is no stranger to Vancouver audiences, having appeared many times in recitals under the auspices of the Vancouver Recital Society. On a snowy Sunday afternoon, Mr. Perahia played a wonderfully varied programme of works by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin.

Perahia opened the recital with J. S. Bach’s French Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major, BWV 815. Unlike Andras Schiff, who played Book One of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in his last appearance here, Perahia did not hesitate to use the pedal when playing Bach. Strangely enough, Schiff achieved a greater variety of colours and sounds without the pedal than Perahia did with pedal. Although Perahia did bring out the characteristics of each of the dance movements, the playing seemed rather two-dimensional, and a touch heavy at times.

I had similar reservations about the pianist’s rendition of Beethoven’s justly famous Sonata No. 23, Op. 57, more often referred to as the Appassionata. Perahia’s performance was extremely polished, with quite daring tempo in the final movement. I did miss the great contrast in sound that the music calls for. Perhaps Perahia was trying to present a different view of a sometimes much maligned work, where pianist with more fingers than brains would bang their way through the work with maximum speed and volume. Certainly it was a more intimate view of this very familiar work. Perhaps one day his view of this work will change again. For now, this is an approach that, as much as one respects Perahia’s perspective, does not always work.

After the intermission, Perahia opened the second half of his programme with Robert Schumann’s Papillons, Op. 2. This was a work that Perahia recorded very early on in his career, and his interpretation has now obviously matured. Perahia successfully managed the lighting fast change of mood between one piece to the next, and brought out the beauty and colours in each of the dance-like pieces. Here, the pianist seemed to have been enjoying himself more in these gems of Schumann’s. I enjoyed his performance of this early Schumann work unreservedly.

Rather than referring to Perahia as a Chopin player, I have often thought of him as a pianist that happens also to play Chopin. That said, he has always had interesting things to say about Chopin. The composer’s late Nocturne, Op. 62, No. 1, was the first piece in his Chopin group, and Perahia played this work beautifully. He certainly brought out the ethereal beauty of Chopin’s melodic writing, while drawing our attention to the intricacies and complexities of the inner voices. I really loved his pacing of this complex work, as well as how he makes the music float under his finger.

Unlike many of today’s young pianists, who would present one or both sets of Chopin’s Etudes in recital, Perahia, wisely, I think, presented only a small group of Etudes from both sets – Nos. 1 and 5 from the Op. 25 set, and No. 4 from the Op. 10 set. His performance of Op. 25, No. 1, the so-called “Aeolian Harp”, was extremely beautiful, and smooth as silk, as was his playing of the middle section of Op. 25, No. 5, with the stunningly gorgeous melody in the left hand. I thought that his playing of the opening of the same Etude was a little over-pedaled, thus missing the quirkiness of the piano writing.

For the last two works in his programme, Perahia finally threw caution to the wind and gave a take-no-prisoner approach to Chopin’s Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 10, No. 4, as well as the Scherzo in B-flat Minor, Op. 31. I do not always agree with Perahia’s tempo transition between sections of this work. It somehow creates an impression of disjointedness, rather than presenting a performance of organic unity so important for Chopin’s music.

After being recalled to the stage by a very enthusiastic audience, Perahia rewarded us with a performance of Schubert’s Impromptu in E-flat Major, Op. 90, No. 2. I felt that the rapid-fingered opening section worked better under Perahia’s hands than the dramatic second section. As with some of the works presented in this recital, I could not help wishing for more colours and a variety of sounds.

Murray Perahia is a sincere artist that always has a viewpoint, a perspective on whatever he plays. Perhaps his analytical approach to the music sometimes gets in the way of spontaneity. I am happy that after the finger injury that forced him to take several sabbaticals from performing, that he seems to be back in full force. I wish him continuing artistic growth, and greater insights into the music he presents to his audience.

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