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Murray Perahia, Celebrity Series

Symphony Hall, Boston, MA

March 28, 2009

Who hasn’t played Murray Perahia’s March 28th program? Or at least tried; all of the works performed by Murray Perahia on Sunday afternoon’s Celebrity Series concert are somewhere gathering dust on my piano, multiple recordings litter my CD collection. It’s music that we’ve studied to understand what Western music is, music we’ve scrutinized to hear what Western music is supposed to sound like, and perhaps that’s what was so fundamentally difficult about Sunday’s performance. What can there possibly be to say about music that’s been spoken about for so long?

As it turns out, a lot: what was stunning about Perahia’s performance was its constant reinvention of the stock works for the piano. Sunday’s performance replaced the standard with the innovative, constantly listening and reiterating old works with an ear to tradition yet presenting an almost dogged exploration of what the music can be.

Take, for instance, Bach’s Keyboard Partita No. 1 in B flat (BWV 825); it seems hubris to try and perform the work, for that matter any Bach, after Glenn Gould’s devastatingly thorough mid-century recordings for Sony Classical. But as with Perahia’s work with the Goldberg Variations, there was something more to be said about the first Partita.

It’s tempting to play Bach on the piano as if it were a harpsichord or clavier (the instrument Bach originally envisioned for the majority of his keyboard works). But the modern piano is very different, especially in the hands of Perahia. Bach’s labyrinthine counterpoint had multiple voices, not by virtue of the music itself, but because it’s possible to accentuate these on the modern piano. In this light, the usually tedious repetitions of each of the movements of the partita weren’t simply embellishments on the original music or vast ornamentations on the skeletal composition, but in a sense, a completely new hearing of the music.

This sense of theme and variation continued through the performance. Classically considered a minor contribution to the development of the genre, Mozart’s piano sonatas are often works of scorn, and it was curious to see the Piano Sonata in F Major (K 332) on the program.

Although Mozart often occupies a space between somewhere elegant and numbingly boring, Perahia’s performance brought new meaning to the sonatas of the classical giant; whereas reiterations of the Bach partita were conspicuously unornamented, the attempts at Mozart were almost baroque with their agréments (the interpretation is not without precedent: Mozart’s Adagio movement is exactly this — a simple melody that is repeated with ornamentation; why not extend the thinking through to the entire sonata?). But more than that, here, Mozart was not marmoreal and bloodless; there was something dramatic about the portrayal that brought Mozart into the vivid light of reality.

The interpretation was an interesting segue to the histrionics of the Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor (Op 57, “Appassionata”). Beethoven is dramatic to begin with, especially works from his middle period (along with the Appasionata, the Waldstein) that are not only complex in their structure but also extended in their form far beyond anyone had previously conceived. Played well, the sonatas depict the frightening ferocity Beethoven must have demonstrated at the piano himself, and in Perahia’s hands, the music turned orchestral, although still backed by the rich intellectualism that pervaded the concert.

The work was a piece for the theme and variation structure of the afternoon’s performance — not only for its theme and variation during the middle movement, but also precisely because of the innovations that Beethoven had brought to the sonata form. Portions of the first movement repeat and explicate not only in the opening portion but throughout the work — the musical game of “hide the melody” pervades the entire piece and this is what became illumined in Perahia’s performance. Certainly, playing the Appassionata is no small feat in itself, but emphasizing Beethoven’s modus operandi takes the work to a completely new level.

As if to drive home the entire point of the afternoon, the program concluded with Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel in B flat Major (Op 24). A relatively early work in Brahms’s opus, it too continues and explicates on work from its predecessors, often gaining a seat as one of the top three theme and variation sets ever composed (two earlier works, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, usually rank as the other two). Variation sets progress from simpler (obvious derivations of the theme) to far more complex (mere hints at where the original theme comes in) throughout the work and it seems only redundant to try and explain Parahia’s masterful performance — regardless of how complex the variation, Perahia’s interpretation was staunchly centered on the original theme of the work, managing pristine clarity in even the most muddled of Brahms’s ideas.

Perahia rewarded the audience with an encore consisting of Schubert’s Impromptu No. 2 in E flat, (Op 90, D 899).

Certainly one of the finest recitals I’ve attended, Murray Perahia’s performance on Sunday afternoon is also one of the most difficult to write about. To call the music, the interpretation, beautiful is a misrepresentation simply because it was far more than that. There are many performers who can play works well, at times even beautifully, and Sunday’s performance certainly fulfilled those requirements. But that wasn’t the point. Listening to Perahia play was not to simply listen to the music, but to explore it. To hear Perahia perform was to sit with an old master at the piano and receive an education on what the stocks of the repertoire are and, more importantly, what they can be.

The result is surprising, to say the least. Although it’s certainly easy and obvious to say that such performances leave the audience with a sense of awe and wonder, it is something else to observe that only with these rarest of musicians, imbued with mastery tempered with understanding, are performances also capable of changing the audience’s understanding of the music at the very fundamental level.