Murray Perahia, who performed a memorable recital Friday at Soka University, is a member of an exclusive and dwindling club of veteran solo-piano superstars whose playing seems as vital and dynamic now as it did at the beginning of their careers. In Perahia’s case, that feat is all the more extraordinary considering the travails he faced in midlife, when an injury to his right thumb in 1990 led to several lengthy hiatuses.
Perahia, who turned 70 on Monday, looks more like an elder statesman now than the dashing and broodingly handsome young man who captured female hearts as well as universal respect during the first two decades of his career in the 1970s and ’80s. One year after winning the Leeds Competition in 1972 – the first American to do so – Perahia began a fruitful 37-year association with Columbia Masterworks, where he started with a bang: his first major recording project was simultaneously playing and conducting all 27 Mozart piano concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra. His three Grammy awards have honored similarly impressive feats, notably his fiery and technically brilliant recording of the complete Chopin Etudes in 2003.
On Friday, Perahia’s aim wasn’t quite so pyrotechnical, but the program included some formidable hills to climb.
Perahia began the evening with J.S. Bach’s French Suite No. 6 in E Major, composed in the mid-1720s. He has always managed to make me forget that Bach’s keyboard music wasn’t meant for the piano. On Friday, his articulation, particularly for the left hand, was fascinating: often a mix of legato and detached notes that helped define and shape the phrases at ground level. The eight-movement suite was a wonderful study in contrasts, from the magisterial Sarabande to the aggressive, quicksilver filigree of the final Gigue. Perahia reportedly studied Bach during his down time; it has paid off in spades.
Franz Schubert’s four Impromptus, Op. 42, were next. Composed in 1827, not long before his death, they are considerably more challenging than their name suggests – impromptus of the time were usually not difficult to play. Any successful interpretation of these loosely structured works makes them sound impetuous and improvised, like supremely inspired noodling at times. Perahia did just that without making a gaudy show of the daunting passages, as some pianists do.
Mozart’s brief Rondo in A Minor, K. 511, is a single-movement work that’s deceptively simple. It starts with a plaintive and surprisingly dissonant minor melody and explores a wide emotional gamut. Perahia’s approach made the work sound more romantic than classical; it played up the poignancy and dissonance of the music.
Beethoven’s final piano sonata, No. 32 in C minor, ended the concert on a monumental note. It’s long, complex and frequently fugal, typical of his late keyboard style, and it contains two massive movements, the second almost twice as long as the first.
Perahia led us into a deep analytical…