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Thoroughly Modern Murray

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
10/22/2000 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach/Ferruccio Busoni: Four Chorale Preludes
Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations

Murray Perahia (piano)

The 250 years since the death of Johann Sebastian Bach have been the most revolutionary in human history, so it is not that surprising to realize that the music that he composed is a considerable distance from that which we today hear. Even the best efforts of the early music movement cannot close this perception gap entirely and certainly in the case of the music for the keyboard the modern product is at best a faint echo of the creator’s intent. Bach undoubtedly did not write this repertoire with the piano in mind since it did not exist, except in incipient form, during his lifetime. He did not even write his pieces with an eye for posterity, the notion of a “classical music” an invention of a later time. Primarily he plied his mathematical trade in order to provide food for his overcrowded table and to ease the financial tensions of his unusually harried life. Bach himself created the ultimate musical compromise, and, as the architect of the tacit agreement between performer and audience to hear two different notes as if they were the same (the “well tempering” concept), allowed for the development of the modern modulation, the key to unlocking the floodgates of Western art music. As the most practical of entertainers, he would have had little problem with his music being presented in its modern form, as long as there was some monetary gain on the horizon.

Bach was, at least to some extent, appreciated in his own lifetime (although primarily as a performer) and then relegated to the dustbin until his “discovery” by Mendelssohn and Schumann. He remained a curiosity throughout the 19th century, regressing rapidly from an excitingly exotic master of the past to a bothersome old fogy as the Romantic age matured (Brahms was fired as music director of the Vienna Philharmonic for programming too much Bach and Handel). His keyboard music, now played on the modern pianoforte, ebbed and flowed with the fashion of the times. Another entire layer of obfuscation was created by the prodigy Ferruccio Busoni, who unashamedly reworked the simple and pure forms of the Leipzig master into opulent essays of post-Romantic emotionalism. These new pieces are totally modern, so transformed from the originals as to make them entirely different creations, as removed from the sensibilities of the 18th century court as are the contemporary symphonies of Scriabin. The Busoni transcriptions began to take on a life of their own almost immediately, forever establishing their performers as exponents of their own interpretive art and not at all interested in the slavish recreation of the lost sounds of the past. For a modern pianist trying to make his own statement about Bach, starting with a little Busoni speaks volumes.

Such a pianist is Murray Perahia. His large and full piano sound is the product of his own era and his emphasis on the dynamic contrasts in this music distances him from a composer who wrote for the harpsichord. In the Busoni organ transcriptions, Perahia exposed another entire layer of music, stridently presenting the left hand harmonies at a much higher volume than the familiar right hand melodies. His four introductory preludes were played so romantically that this could just have easily been the beginning of a Chopin or Schumann afternoon.

After a brief pause, Perahia launched into a contemplative reading of the Goldbergs. As befits a student of Horszowski, his technique is based on economy of motion. There are no big gestures and when there is a cross handed passage it is all the more exciting for its visual coordination. Taking all 30 variations as one long development, this intellectual pianist, who has impressed since his teenaged days at Marlboro in his abilities to think like a composer, built a strong edifice ultimately expressing with his golden tones (and the expressions of his face) the joy of pure logic. I never remember whether it is left brain or right, but I am undoubtedly the opposite of Bach and yet, in a performance like this one, I too can revel in the glory of his ordered God. Like Edwin Fischer before him and Andras Schiff (who will perform the same piece in two weeks at Carnegie) today, Mr. Perahia is able to project this music across the centuries and hit an angst-ridden modern target at its bull’s eye.

Orson Welles once responded to an interviewer’s question about his abilities to transform the classics of literature onto film by expounding on the virtues of Verdi and Bellini (he meant Rossini) in their interpretations of Othello. Ultimately, Welles theorized, the finished contemporary opera is the work to be judged, not on its faithfulness to the Shakespearean original, but rather on its own merits. With practitioners like Murray Perahia, the big toned and big boned structures of the modern piano are meritorious indeed for the timeless music of “old Bach”.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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