Celebrity Series presented the eminent American pianist Murray Perahia to a crowded Symphony Hall on Sunday, March 29. Many in attendance who have been anxiously awaiting his return to Boston greeted the internationally celebrated conductor and pianist with an enthusiasm afforded our Red Sox en route to a World Series.
To imagine the mental and physical stamina required for an afternoon of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms may be one thing; to anticipate the very real possibility of being swept away, quite another. All of this seemed to be in the air—and in the minds and hearts—of his admiring fans.
Leading off with Bach, to whom the pianist often turned during time-outs taken for on-and-off-again bouts with ailing fingers, Perahia conveyed an uncommon ease throughout Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major. He let the discursive dances speak for themselves. He pronounced the Sarabande’s melody in plain declarative terms while allowing Minuet I to take several steps back and be heard as a near-murmur. And for the Gigue he coaxed simple two-note calls and responses into animated conversation.
Was this the solace he found in Bach, the solace he has spoken of?
Up next, Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F major, K. 332. In his program notes, Steven Ledbetter comments on the many restraints Mozart fettered to his sonatas. Perahia would have us believe otherwise, fielding every mood and gesture and everything in between.
I have never before heard an action-packed performance such as this: the first movement teaming with blinding shifts; the second movement’s bell-like melody soaring above a warm, sotto voce accompaniment, the minute surprises—tiny piercing pings momentarily saddening the mood, for one; and finally the rip-roaring last movement, where Perahia swerved in and out of passages now joyous, now tongue-in-cheek, now bold.
Perahia pointed his portrayal of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor by plumbing the depths beneath the so-called “Appassionata.” It was non-stop high drama thick with emotion. In one instance in the first movement, he pedaled the ba-ba-ba-baah motive causing sounds to overlap; he then articulated the same motive crisply in staccato fashion. The two iterations created an unnerving suspense. And it was this kind of detail that was ever present.
If this now infamous motive really did stand for fate knocking at the door in the Fifth Symphony, what then does it mean here? Murray Perahia brought us along on an unbelievably tragic, if not anguishing, journey. He induced scenarios all too real. I actually felt my stomach roll with the impetuous rhythms striving so desperately to end this “appassionata” sonata.
How each piece on a concert relates to another is something pianists plan, keys being one important factor (B-flat, F major, F minor, B-flat). In a further display of his extraordinary acumen for programming, Perahia kept building all the way along from the opening moderated tones in Bach to the climatic cadences in Beethoven. Someone a few seats away observed a connection—how Perahia made Mozart’s third movement Beethovenian-like. What a way to lead into the softest sounds of the afternoon! The pianissimo opening of the “Appassionata” was stunning.
After intermission, Perahia again stepped up to the piano, this time for Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel in B-flat major, Opus 24. A noisy fan, unable to elicit a change of expression from the patient and focused gnome-like figure bent on a mission, quickly quieted down.
These rarely heard Variations seemed to encapsulate what had transpired in the first half of the concert. Without showing any sign of fatigue after 25 variations, all technically demanding in one way or another, Perahia hit the ground running with a stentorian performance of the Fugue.
A long and vocal standing “O” eventually brought him back for an encore, Schubert’s Impromptu in E-flat major, Opus 90 no. 2.
Comparisons of major league pianists are inevitable. But no amount of exegesis can get around the fact that Murray Perahia is as finely tuned to the piano as to a composer’s score. His inimitable voice comes completely naturally; there is nothing idiosyncratic or harsh about it. Perahia’s rendering of these four masterworks at Symphony Hall showed what an inexhaustible source of transformative power they possess when in the right hands.