It becomes increasingly clear as Murray Perahia approaches age 40 (next year) that this former boy wonder of American music is maturing into as accomplished a pianist as America has produced in his generation. His program Sunday at the Kennedy Center displayed not only the qualities of a master, but the qualities of a very individual master.
From the very beginning of his career, when he broke upon the scene at Marlboro at 19, one thing in particular was unmistakable -- that Perahia was a colorist of the greatest subtlety and beauty. The range of his palette is extraordinary. It is as precise as Pollini's command of color. But its variety is actually wider and more instant. The comparisons in this respect to Rubinstein have not been misplaced.
But the question has always been to what musical purposes this and Perahia's other gifts will be placed. His early involvement with both playing and conducting the 27 Mozart concertos -- of which he has recently made a complete recording -- had him pegged in the public eye as a Mozart specialist. And his Mozart is superb.
But Sunday there was no Mozart. There was, instead, a striking variety of styles -- classical, romantic, contemporary -- in which Perahia brought his greatest strengths to bear. The enormously poetic lyricism of his phrasing was used in different ways; for instance, in the languorous Chopin pair that concluded the program and in the greater asperity of the First Sonata by Britain's most noted living composer, Sir Michael Tippett.
Whatever the style, though, there were certain constants: an astonishingly minute control of dynamic gradations; the ability to spin almost any lyric line with unfailing beauty; an evenness in all kinds of runs and ornaments that no current player of any age whom I can think of can exceed.
The two encores, especially, were almost ideally tailored to this kind of playing: Mendelssohn's incredibly finger-twisting Rondo Capriccioso and Schubert's E-flat Impromptu. The evenness of the runs in the Schubert were remarkable in their tonal control (never a hard sound) and in their precision (not only was nothing ever rushed, but on the repeat of the main theme he actually seemed to slow a bit).
There is one virtuoso characteristic that Perahia seems to eschew: bravura display, as in the Schumann G-minor Sonata, Op. 22, which is a musical torrent much of the time. Perahia chose not to hit the keyboard with quite the velocity that so different and equally masterful a Schumann player as Horowitz would probably bring. Still, there was nothing timid about Perahia's version. In fact, his articulation is so uncannily accurate that even though his sonority was a little cloudy -- deliberately -- the notes were crystal clear. This is, after all, somewhat murky music, and therein lies some of its intriguing mystery.
*For contrast, there was, for clean music, Beethoven's very early A-flat Sonata, Op. 2, No. 2. Perahia's fleet elegance and delicacy were so beautifully used that the sonata actually sounded more substantial than one expected.
The upshot one faced after two hours of such playing was that Murray Perahia has reached such a level as an artist that it will never again be his lot to be regarded as a specialist in anything. His tastes are too catholic and his artistry too wide ranging.