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Pianist Murray Perahia, The Unassuming Olympian

Orange County
Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall
03/13/2007 -  
Bach: Partita No. 2 in C minor BWV 826
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 15 in D Major, Op. 28 “Pastoral”
Brahms: 6 Piano Pieces, Op. 118
Chopin: Etude No. 1 in A-flat Major, Op. 25 “Aeolian Harp” and Etude No. 4 in C-sharp minor, Op. 10, Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 47

Murray Perahia (piano)

Murray Perahia’s concert last Tuesday night at the new Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa ascended toward the platonic ideal of a piano recital. It was the kind of evening that you don’t really need to talk about. You just wish you could hear it over and over again. The sound and music were limpid and bright, seeming to shine transparently through from the spirits of the composers themselves. Perahia appeared to disappear into infinite modesty, letting the music channel directly across him, almost without human mediation. From a perfect seat in the front row of the orchestra terrace, halfway back on the keyboard side, the acoustic was overwhelmingly marvelous. The sound was as wet and present as cold wave from the Pacific, splashing up and shocking you into in a brilliant alertness.

But there were a few drawbacks. The sound in the hall is so bright, somewhat akin to Disney Hall, that coughs and rustling programs are right in your ears. In the vast warmth of the illustrious Carnegie Hall sound, those little vibrations of the air often disappear into a lustrous background. But in the new Segerstrom Hall, the extraneous noise annoys, even while the vivid presence and transparency of the sound amazes. It would be better if they could do something about the squealing feet of the chairs in the first balcony. And why are there no cough drops given away in the lobby, as there are in many other halls around the world? Dean Corey, the Executive Director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County does a great job of educating the audience, even reminding them when to applaud and when not to, on occasion. But the printed programs could prominently note that coughing produces noise at particular level of decibels, and that coughing covered by a handkerchief produces less than half that noise. Alfred Brendel, quoted in the Los Angeles Times last weekend, remarked that California audiences lead the world in noisy coughing.

The other drawback was that the hall was half empty. Admittedly, as the marketing people would note, there was a lot of competition that night. Southern California was also gifted with Alfred Brendel performing at Disney Hall. It was a misfortune that they did not play on different nights. But such glorious music in such splendid spaces should certainly help grow the audience. If there is a “ticket rush” program, it has not been very well publicized. Student rush tickets might be offered for as low a price as five dollars. Why not fill the empty seats? There could also be a “public rush” for twenty dollars during the last hour before the concert that would also sell some tickets. When I was a student in Paris many years ago, you could buy an inexpensive student subscription to the opera. They would seat student subscribers in the best available seat just before curtain time.

In any case, Murray Perahia is one of our supreme and most balanced pianists. In the Paradiso of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the principal image is that of the celestial rose, a formation of singing angels and blessed souls that revolves eternally in harmonic majesty. Perahia’s version of Bach’s Partita No. 2 could match the splendor of Dante’s celestial music. The Bach offered a subtle and sublime sequence of dances; they could have easily and joyously gone on forever. Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Sonata was also singing and translucent. Perahia’s performance was the ideal of modesty, effortless, limpid, so quietly rapturous that you hardly noticed that that it was absolutely without a flaw.

After the intermission, with the audience in palm of his hand, Perahia introduced a greater range of emotion. With Brahms’ six gorgeous piano pieces, he led us into the land of Faerie, a shadowy magical country filled with passion and sentiment. Brahms ravishing dark forest took us from spring to winter and then back to fall and summer in the blink of an eye, carrying us along its rivers through rapids and deep water. In Chopin’s “Aeolian Harp” Etude, there almost seemed to be no piano, but only the glistening sound of the wind. He gave Chopin’s Etude No. 4 in C-sharp minor the rhythmic gait of an organic rubato that was absolutely natural to the piece.

The Chopin Etudes and Ballades are so familiar that when less than stellar performers play them they are often disappointing. But through the hands of a musician like Murray Perahia, they can become peak moments of experience in almost anyone’s life. The audience was on its feet. The encores, awash in a glow of pleasure, affection and respect, were Schumann’s “Fantasiestucke, Op. 12, Traumeswirren” and Chopin’s Nocturne No. 4 in F-major, Opus 15 No. 1.

Thomas Aujero Small



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