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The Sound of Surprise

New York
Carnegie Hall
05/03/2004 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata # 16
Robert Schumann: Fantasiestuecke
Johannes Brahms: Handel Variations

Murray Perahia (piano)

Long before his passion for Georg Friedrich Handel got him fired as director of the Vienna Philharmonic, Brahms fashioned a magnificent paean to the man and his era, forging in the process the summit of pianistic variation art. Unified stylistically, as opposed to his later Paganini Variations which move from form to form kaleidoscopically, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel rely almost exclusively on differences of dynamics and touch. Few pianists ever attempt to perform them live (and even fewer the Paganinis with their lack of black key orientation points) and still fewer succeed in the ascent.

Murray Perahia began his recital last evening at Carnegie Hall in fine fettle, presenting the mercurial changes of the first movement of the Beethoven with strength and grace. Once into the allegro grazioso, Perahia also showed off his ability to stay uniform within a style, each note perfectly formed rhythmically to exhibit solid oneness with his leisurely conception. But one noticed even here that the normally sure-handed performer was having an off night, many inaccuracies plaguing this strolling journey and the rapid rondo to come. Although still steely-fingered, Perahia seemed sloppy at times, almost devil may care.

These same problems of waywardness haunted the otherwise poetic performance of the Schumann. Only in the brilliant Aufschwung, with its premonitions of the Brahms to come (particularly in the strong left hand), did the rendition utterly appeal. Otherwise there was a tentativeness masquerading as poetic rubato, a sense of shapelessness in spots, so uncharacteristic of a keyboard master who has exhibited deep architectural skills and incisive compositional sense for many years.

With somewhat lowered expectations, this reviewer settled in for a monumental rendition of his own personal favorite piano music. Instead there emerged a surprisingly indelicate version, notable in an ignominious way for a left hand that seemed to be performing Wagner’s ”hammer song” and not too faithfully at that. Truly this was a surprisingly disappointing run-through, dominated by a bass line so loud and sustained by foot power as to create a mass of overtones reminiscent of some of the wilder of Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards. By their very nature, variations are episodic and so some of the individual sections were quite well played, but, even here, one wished for more delicacy of conception, a longer pause in dotted passages, a nimbler right hand touch. Perahia’s tempi were brisk and that was fine; what was insufficient was a sense of contrast, of two distinct patterns happening at once, of poetic coordination. The tension towards the end of the variations proper was pedaled into mush.

The last time that I heard this piece, the normally reliable Vladimir Feltsman got hopelessly lost in the Brahmsian jungle and stumbled badly at the opening of the fugue. This night, the even steadier Murray Perahia found himself fighting to stay alive, eventually flailing away in a personal heroic struggle like a schizophrenic emerging from a psychotropic medication. Brahms, like Rachmaninoff, fashioned his keyboard music to be extremely difficult, thus leaving himself as its only true master (and well compensated interpreter). Murray Perahia may have had high hopes for this recital, but it turned out to be a little more than he could comfortably handel.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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