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April 23, 2002

Perahia plays piano

There are those pianists who have their own 'approach'. There are those who have their own 'style'. There are those who have their own 'mannerisms'. And then there's Murray Perahia, who, it seems, has none of the three: he is neither very idiosyncratic nor immediately recognizable, and he doesn't seem to twist every piece according to his own whims. But Perahia does have something that is truly his own, namely a sound: the famous, gloriously poetic Perahia sound. It is a rich and glowing sound, full of shades and colors, never falling into sickly lyricism, always full-bodied and firm-grounded. A tone that sounds so natural and poetic that it makes one almost forget the technique and craft behind it.

Perahia brought this sound, and his impeccable musicality, to Chicago last Sunday. First, with a dramatic and epic reading of Beethoven's 32 Variations on an original theme, that dense and astounding little work that points in so many ways to the titanic Diabelli Variations, Perahia balanced intelligently between quick-fingered virtuosity and poetic introspection, recreating the piece's curiously austere, yet passionate mood. Equally impressive was his Chopin, selections from whom made up the entire second half of the recital. In Perahia's hands, the great romantic appears much unlike the person he himself seemed to have been. Where contemporary Parisian critics often complained about Chopin's pianissimo fetishism, his tendency to play so softly as to become almost one with the magical realms of silence that music ever emerges from, Perahia's authoritative playing testifies to none of that. For Perahia, Chopin is a great masculine and heroic character, never without nostalgic inspiration, but always steadfast and self-assured. If the sentiment is one of elegy, it must be so: not because the poet has failed in the eyes of the world, but because his world itself is helplessly lost, lost in and with itself. Lament becomes the only adequate stance, along with an occasional effort to once again, or perhaps for the last time, re-evoke the glory of the past. The Ballades, Chopin's supreme musical achievements, speak eloquently of this wistful wish, and the Mazurkas, like so many of Chopin's dance movements, yearn equally for an age in which the world will be one with itself in a collective effervescence of joy and chant. If such a uniquely romantic worldview seems distant from ours today, so far removed from our own sober and scientific days, when glory and dance no longer even appear as lost, because we've forgotten the loss itself, Perahia's impressive performances brought us at least a step closer to such an intense experience of the world. However paradoxical it may sound, his interpretations are romanticism sculptured in stone, for eternity, yet they don't mummify its great protagonist, rather bringing him to greater life than ever.

At last, however, I shall speak of the greatest musical poet of them all, the one and only Franz Schubert, whose profound intuitions repeatedly put even Chopin to shame. Perahia's performance of Schubert's famous last piano sonata brought us back to those precious days in 1828 Vienna, the very last days of Schubert's short life, that saw a period of immense productivity. These were the days when the young, moribund composer wrote his Winterreise, the great C major Symphony, the String Quintet and the last three Piano Sonatas, each of them towering, unparalleled achievements. If music, to misquote Novalis, is homesickness, that is, the drive to be at home everywhere, Schubert's works reflect this longing like that of no other composer, and the B flat major sonata is only its characteristic instantiation. Take, for example, the opening of the first movement. It begins with a peaceful, tender, inward-looking choral theme: unassuming, and in any case hardly spectacular. We hear almost perfect, undisturbed harmony until the short melody settles on an F major chord. Then, however, Schubert inserts a growling dissonance deep down in the bass, a trill on G flat that calls into question everything we've heard so far. Where does this mysterious trill come from and what does it speak of? This trill defies all musicological 'explanations' or 'analyses' precisely because they beg the question by giving an account that delivers as a 'ground' what is to be accounted for in the first place. The trill, like all of Schubert's last works, speaks of the unhomelikeness of the home, the uncanniness of the familiar. It renders strange and eerie that which one thinks one is accustomed to. It indicates the groundlessness of the poet, nay, of all those who are trying to find a home in the world. It sends the poet onto a never-ending adventure, onto a terrifying journey, the stations of which are only so many failed attempts to build a home in music, to create in song that which cannot be had in the real world. All of Schubert's great works are winter's journeys.

Murray Perahia, that great musical poet, understands this like few others. Hence, he attacked the notorious trill not in a wishy-washy manner—as one hears so often—but crisply and aggressively, in a way that would send a shiver down the spines of those for whom Schubert's music consists of little more than pretty melodies. As the drama unfolded, Perahia once again displayed his grasp of large-scale musical processes, his ability to understand works as a meaningful whole. Although he seemed somewhat nervous, playing more wrong notes than usual, at times almost losing his carefully-built sound, Perahia pulled together all his concentration for a masterful account of the difficult second movement, and ended the work with a psychologically sensitive reading of the finale.

However impressive Perahia's recital, the glorious days of the great pianists are not over quite yet. This Sunday, Alfred Brendel, another monumental figure, will come to Symphony Hall to play a program of Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms. More information at www.cso.org.