Murray Perahia’s piano recital at Strathmore delivers on expectations and exceeds them

March 5

One expects certain things from a recital by Murray Perahia: some carefully chiseled Bach, some Chopin or Schumann miniatures performed with a rubato so spontaneous that they sound as if they have just been improvised. The celebrated American pianist, now in the fifth decade of his career, delivered all of those things during his concert Tuesday night, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society at Strathmore.

The fourth French Suite was classic Perahia Bach, with no need to make grandiose statements, just to let the music unfold: a blithe allemande, a tripping courante, a delicate sarabande, sprightly small dances with curlicue decorations, a brash gigue. Schumann’s “Papillons” was enlivened by tiny voicing details, like the brushstrokes and fine shading of a master painter, a series of whimsical thoughts rambled out like a Romantic stream of consciousness. A set of Chopin pieces, distinguished by gentle nobility rather than syrupy sentiment, was perhaps the least note-perfect but no less affecting.

Listeners revere an artist such as Perahia, though, because he can still smash all expectations, as he did in a riveting performance of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata. Perahia gave a calculated punch to the gut in the play of dramatic contrasts, piano moments as well as forte ones, which lent the agitated repeated notes and wild arpeggios of this most familiar work an air of frenetic desperation. After the poetically rendered slow movement and a finale marked by implacable fury, with a Presto coda that somehow managed to top the already fast pace, one felt the need to go outside and howl at the late-winter moon. If it had come at the end of the recital, instead of before intermission, the audience would not have been satisfied with the single encore, Schubert’s E-flat impromptu.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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