Beautiful notes and all the rests

Concert: Murray Perahia's soaring performance of Schubert and Beethoven at the Kennedy Center Saturday, owes its eloquence to the pianist's attention to detail

Music review

April 26, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Murray Perahia's piano playing is so natural in its phrasing, so beautiful in its sonority and so unmarred by idiosyncrasies that it is sometimes possible to forget what an original musician he can be. This was the case in his appearance Saturday in the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall -- with a program that featured genuinely revelatory performances of works by Beethoven and Schubert.

Perhaps the high point of the program was Perahia's performance of Schubert's C Minor Sonata. This work, with which the printed program concluded, is often compared to (and interpreted like) those of Beethoven. The terse, dramatic Beethoven-like opening, with its direct allusion to the older composer's C Minor Variations, appears to most pianists as the key to the work's meaning. And the first movement can be played -- very successfully, too, as Evgeny Kissin demonstrated a few seasons back -- almost as if it were Beethoven.

Perahia's achievement was in realizing that it is in the first movement's sinuous chromatics, rather than in its rhetorical gestures, that the music is most eloquent. Without the pounding that is the consequence of overplaying the movement's Beethoven-like elements, Perahia was able to make its obsessively restless tonal wanderings sound like the mutterings of unquiet spirits, newly risen from graves in unconsecrated earth. These chilling moments were made all the more telling by Perahia's subtle ear, care for color and imaginative pedaling.

The rest of the sonata was played just as wonderfully. Perahia can make each rest as important as each note. Yet for all his refinements of tone, detail and idea, the pianist's reading never lost its focus and drive. While the ultimate effect of the sonata should be haunting -- particularly that chilling finale -- Perahia never sacrificed the directness and charm of the music to that purpose.

Security precautions because of the NATO conference closed several Washington streets and prevented me from listening to Perahia's performance of Bach's "English Suite" in E Minor, but two Beethoven sonatas proved almost as remarkable as the Schubert. The little F Major Sonata (Opus 10, No. 2) bubbled with merriment and sarcasm; the fugal opening of the finale made even more surprising by the pianist's superb broken octaves, deft finger work and crisp staccato.

Perahia's performance of the C-sharp Minor Sonata (Opus 27, No. 2) -- the so-called "Moonlight" -- suggested some solutions to the problems of playing Beethoven on the modern piano. The importance of the composer's long-held pedal marking for the first movement cannot be overemphasized -- the music loses its all-important veil of mystery without it.

But on the modern instrument, a fully depressed pedal will make the music's patterns collapse as if they were etched in a mountain of mud. Perahia achieved the properly hypnotic effect with restrained and subtly varied pedaling and with a light left hand that kept the accompanying triplets on the modern instrument's powerful bass from overwhelming the quietly singing melody in the right hand.

Perahia's three encores were transcriptions by Liszt of Schubert's "Erlkonig" and "Auf dem Wasser zu zingen" and the fourth Impromptu of Schubert's Opus 90.

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