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Murray Perahia's piano virtuosity lifts Bach, Beethoven, Brahms
April 1st, 2009
By Father Basil De Pinto

It seems like only yesterday but it was almost thirty years ago that a young New York pianist named Murray Perahia made a series of astonishing recordings of Mozart piano concertos. Notable not only for great virtuosity but also for impeccable taste, this superb artist continues to provide performances that give evidence of constant growth and depth of understanding, as he showed in his recital on March 19 at Zellerbach Hall under the auspices of Cal Performances.


It was while Perahia was playing Beethoven’s Sonata No. 15 in D that this listener was struck by the greatness of the music: not the playing, which was unquestionably fine, but by the way the artist led one into the presence of the composer and his work. The pianist seemed to be saying, “Listen to this music - not to me -- but to this amazing creation of a great genius.”


There is no false modesty involved here. When an actor or a singer “disappears” into a role, we never forget the mastery of the interpreter. But we become aware that the artist is above all the servant of a higher master and is bringing us to a shared consciousness of the treasure unfolding before us.


At a time when performers frequently need to convince their audience of the range of their accomplishments, it’s refreshing to find an artist with the courage to program the three B’s: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. This is a different kind of range: the stylistic differences are so demanding that only a very self-assured pianist would play the three in one evening and hope to do justice to them all. Perahia did that in spades.


There are purists who object to playing Bach’s keyboard music on the modern piano, which did not exist in the composer’s time. Perahia has no such qualms and it seems reasonable to suppose that if Bach heard his music played with the technical skill and interpretive artistry of this pianist, he would have no objections either. The Partita No. 6 in E minor belongs to that genre of compositions geared to dance rhythms so loved and familiar in the 18th century. Perahia drew every bit of delicious verve out of the music without neglecting its formal contours.


Beethoven stands midway between the extreme classicism of Bach, with its undoubted softer side, and the full- blown romanticism of Brahms, with its unswerving loyalty to the classic tradition. Perahia is fully attuned to these subtleties; hence the reaction to his playing of the sonata: the composer holds our attention because the pianist sculpts the music with such skill and thus reveals its true value.


In the Handel Variations, Brahms was aware that he was treading on familiar ground where both Bach and Beethoven had preceded him. In this exercise the composer takes a simple tune and subjects it to a series of repetitions, each one a different way of saying the same thing. Tedium is avoided only when the composer has the creative imagination to make each variation a new and original statement of the underlying theme.


The challenge for the performer is to respond in kind, carefully drawing sound pictures that reflect the constantly shifting musical shapes while maintaining continuity with the underlying theme. The special requirement here is the number of variations, 25 in all, capped by a staggeringly difficult fugue, in which four different voices are contrasted and blended to make an end that truly crowns the work. In lesser hands this can seem like technical game-playing; Perahia made it an artistic achievement that those who heard it will not soon forget.


For more of Murray Perahia’s music, visit


Father Basil De Pinto is a frequent contributor on the arts.

From April 3, 2009 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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