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Murray Perahia's Truly Grand Piano

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Few pianists play with the mixture of poetry, intelligence, formal clarity and lush lyricism that Murray Perahia brings to the instrument, and his Sunday afternoon recital at the Music Center at Strathmore was one of the highlights of the fall season.

If there are some artists who are pianists first and musicians second (Lang Lang and the late Vladimir Horowitz come to mind, players whose sheer virtuosity leave us gaping), Perahia reverses the equation. His technical skills are admirable, but one has the sense that he would be just as persuasive on any instrument he took the time to learn. Indeed, such are Perahia's powers of musical continuity that I suspect he could start a piece, walk offstage, wait five minutes, come back and finish playing, and maintain our rapt attention the whole time.

Sunday's program began with Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita No. 4 in D Minor -- all flourishes and flair. Perahia appreciates the sonic qualities of a modern grand piano: He makes no attempt to turn it into a demi-harpsichord and he makes generous use of the damper pedal. And yet he does not over-romanticize; he remembers that Bach patterned his music on dance forms and proceeds accordingly, imbuing each movement with a tensile, rhythmic pulse. This was gorgeous and intimate Bach playing: It was as though Perahia were sharing some deep secrets with a couple of thousand friends.

Beethoven's Sonata in D, Op. 28 ("Pastoral") represents the composer at his most elevated and serene. I prefer a more expansive tempo in the first movement than Perahia adopted on Sunday but it would be hard to imagine a sweeter and sillier rendition of the Scherzo. Claudio Arrau, the late pianist, once made the staggering claim that Beethoven had no sense of humor: As Perahia played it, this little movement, all by itself, can stand as definitive refutation.

After intermission, Six Piano Pieces, Op. 118, from the elderly Johannes Brahms, were very much like the day itself -- autumnal, sun-splashed, beautiful even in decay. For the most part, the playing was typically lyrical and luminous, but loud passages occasionally took on a hard, forced sound that used to be anathema to Perahia, at times approximating a Horowitz-like brittleness. This carried over to the more strenuous passages in a closing set of works by Chopin, yet Perahia redeemed himself with the wit and bouncing grace he found in the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat.

Sunday's concert was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, which has been bringing Perahia to town since 1969.

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