Hurricane Sandy left most of midtown Manhattan intact -- with the exception of a broken crane hanging over 57th Street, seemingly ready to fall any moment. Whole blocks were closed down, and Carnegie Hall had to turn away performers and audiences day after day, hastily postponing what concerts it could reschedule and canceling what it couldn't shuffle around. Fortunately, one of the most highly anticipated performances early this season found a new venue within a couple of days -- the Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center accommodated American pianist Murray Perahia's solo recital.
The concert opened with "Haydn's Sonata in D major" (Hob. XVI:24), lithe and bright. His Schubert "Moments Musicaux" (D.780) was the best kind of Schubert there is -- endlessly introspective and a serious exploration of warm earthy tones. He concluded the first half of the program with Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata (No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No.2) -- the best I have ever heard that wasn't played on a hammerklavier. For something written in the classical period, this work is uncharacteristically impressionistic. Played on the modern piano with all its capabilities, it is all too easy to overload Beethoven with too much dynamism, or the wrong kind of dynamism. Perahia's soft-focus approach found the perfect "not too hot, not too cold" balance; exploring the full range of shades within the classical palette without overburdening the acoustics with unnecessary drama.
Perhaps the piece that left the most lasting impression this night was Schumann's five-piece suite, "Faschingsschwank aus Wien" ("Carnival Scenes from Vienna" Op.26). Schumann is one of the most popular composers in piano repertoire, characterized by fierce romanticism, but the extreme mood swings of his music sometimes present a problem to performers -- his music can be a hyper whirlwind of episodes; a little incoherent and manic. Perahia's subtle yet nuanced interpretation offered much to savor and enjoy -- he drew out delicate changes in harmony or intonation, making one hold one's breath or slightly raise an eyebrow in anticipation or wonder. He did not seek to overplay dramatic contrasts in mood but seamlessly moved from one to the next, like turning the pages of a wondrously illustrated book.
Perahia summed up the concert with a couple of pieces by Chopin; the "Impromptu in F sharp major" (Op. 36) and "Scherzo No. 1 in B minor" (Op. 20). The latter is not a work pianists frequently play to end a recital -- while the music is much appreciated, it often does not seem impressive enough to finish off a concert with a flourish. That was not an issue with Perahia - played with romantic sensitivity and delicacy; it was a fitting end to an evening of rare pleasures.
Perahia's remarkable lack of excess is actually a luxury to hear -- so many pianists run to excess of one kind or another; it was a delight to hear music that wasn't pushed to its limits, trying hard to wow the crowd. It would be hard for another pianist to imitate his subtlety and temperance -- he or she would come across as unremarkable -- and for this, audiences love Perahia. Greeted with fervent applause and a standing ovation, he treated the concertgoers with a couple more small pieces; Schubert's Impromptu in A flat minor and Chopin's "Nocturne in F major" (Op.15 No.1.)