Murray Perahia is not what you’d call a musical trailblazer. He’s been quite happy, through a high-profile career, to confine himself — if “confine” is the right word — to the giants of the classical canon. His recital programs in Washington in recent years have adhered to a basic template, and Sunday afternoon’s concert at Strathmore, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, was no exception: Bach followed by a Beethoven sonata followed by some Romantic fare — here, Brahms with a bonus Schubert sonata — and a helping of Chopin to top it off.
To some, a white-bread concert. But in a world that increasingly puts a premium on being different, striking, original, new, Perahia maintains preeminence simply by doing what he does supremely well, with enough humanity and insight that his music is, indeed, as striking and original as you could want. In some hands, this repertory might seem simply routine; Perahia on Sunday offered a reminder that white bread can be the staff of life.
Playing Bach on the piano rather than the harpsichord has long been the subject of polarizing debate. But Perahia, who spent several years in the 1990s studying Bach while sidelined from performing because of a hand injury, seems unruffled by it. His Bach, represented Sunday by the French Suite No. 5, doesn’t try to sound delicate or “Baroque” but doesn’t romanticize the music, either: it’s refreshingly straightforward, without the sewing-machine rat-a-tat of the harpsichordist but with a kind of fluid, articulate delicacy that manages to be at once meditative and gently robust. Bach encourages facility, but although Perahia had plenty of fluidity in his fingers, as he showed in the four Chopin pieces that ended the program, his Bach didn’t sound easy. Rather, it was mellifluous, even — without pomposity — meaningful.
Opening with Bach was also a way to signal a program that was more concerned with significance than technical razzle-dazzle. Beethoven’s two-movement E minor piano sonata was less of a highlight than the shorter, intense bursts of Brahms’s late Op. 119 piano pieces, ending with the frenzied Rhapsody in E-flat that went to the brink of banging on the piano without ever lapsing into the crude or obvious.
Schubert’s A Major sonata opened with a blast of warm sunlight that was quickly threatened by gathering dark clouds from the left hand — a darkness that built in the second movement only to be transformed, after all, into a kind of triumphant sunset.
Was it perfect? Technically, not at all; there were a number of slight slips, dropped notes. Such slips have come to serve as a quasi-signifier of old-school heart: We’re developing something of a mystique about the humanity of the Schnabels and Cortots, who made great art by taking risks and not worrying about a few mistakes, as opposed to the robotic technical perfection of many of today’s rising young virtuosos. Perahia has less self-aggrandizement than many pianists of his stature, but he certainly seemed to be playing on a level that made a couple of missed notes irrelevant.
In the final Chopin pieces, however, he demonstrated that his technical chops are very much present, although it was still the expression, rather than the virtuosity, that made the playing so riveting: the way the Mazurka in C-sharp minor deflated at the end, as if air was being let out of a balloon; the almost Straussian gestures of the C-sharp minor Scherzo. He offered two encores — Schubert’s Impromptu No. 2 and yet another Chopin piece in C-sharp minor, the fourth etude of Op. 10 — that were completely of a piece with the program, with no sense of diminution of focus, expression or — a constant in an uplifting afternoon — enjoyment.