Concertos Nos. 3, 5, 6, 7
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Murray Perahia, pianist and conductor
Sony Classical #SK89.690
Pictures at an Exhibition
Evgeny Kissin, piano
RCA Victor #09026-63884-2
The first thing one notices about
Murray Perahia's latest recording of Bach
Keyboard Concertos is the brisk tempo, the
ebullient phrasing, and rhythmically incisive orchestral
playing that carries the listener along from note to note
in breathless anticipation. At the helm of the impeccable
Academy of St. Martins in the Field, Murray Perahia's
conducting skills are as impressively arrayed here as
his keyboard virtuosity. Which brings us to the second
thing: Murray Perahia as soloist, and the dawning awareness
that we may quite possibly be hearing the greatest Bach
interpreter of our day.
Both as piano soloist
and conductor, Perahia deals elegantly with issues of
balance that inevitably arise when performing early music
on modern instruments. Concertos written for harpsichord
take on a very different texture when played on a modern
concert grand; the ringing tone and sheer volume of the
piano can easily dominate the strings in ways not envisioned
by the composer. But in these performances the relationship
of strings to keyboard solo has been deftly re-calibrated.
The piano and orchestra become equal partners, parts of
an integrated whole, woven together as seamlessly as if
this were chamber music.
As well, Perahia
has edited the score with subtlety and wit. The moment
that knocks me off my chair arrives in the finale of the
Concerto No. 5 in F minor
when the propulsive opening phrase, scored for keyboard
and the full compliment of strings, is answered by a two
note descending figure in the strings alone. Ordinarily
these two notes are bowed, but on this disc they are played
with a robust pizzicato, standing out in sharp relief
against a momentary background of silence. The sound is
so startling, so fresh and unexpected, one's ears are
put on full alert. This device is used to great effect
throughout the movement; many of the normally bowed phrasings
are rendered as pizzicato, making the rhythms and texture
of the piece sound newly minted. After repeated hearings,
I began to wonder if this might not be a sly nod to the
absent harpsichord, an instrument whose strings are plucked
as the keys are depressed. Here, in a textural turn-about,
the orchestra's plucked strings serve as counterpoint
to the full, round, sustained tones of the Steinway concert
of the harpsichord's coloration can be heard in the addition
of a theorbo, a kind of 16th century bass lute, to the
orchestra. At strategic moments its gentle, harpsichord-like
twang provides a delicate crease at the edges of the music's
tonal fabric that I haven't heard on any other recording
of this music.
I like this
disc even better than Perahia's pervious, and highly praised
recording of Bach's keyboard concertos Nos. 1, 2, and
4 with the same orchestra. As good as that recording is,
I find the playing on the new disc is freer and more invigorating.
The collaboration between soloist and orchestra sounds
here even more assured, more intimate, almost as if they
had merged into one instrument. The sound on this recording
is also more immediate, more alive.
The gold standard
for these concertos - as played on a modern piano - has
for decades been Glenn Gould's groundbreaking recordings
of the late 1950's. Gould's Bach performances were a revelation.
He blew the dust off scores nearly a quarter of a millennium
old and made them sound - well - sexy. For the generation
of listeners who cut their teeth on his recordings, Gould's
iconoclastic interpretations, to say nothing of his personal
eccentricities, raised him to the level of a cult hero
whose mystique has barely diminished.
But Perahia has
upped the ante. His performances have all the clarity
of line, all the visceral excitement of Gould's, but with
an added dimension of warmth and nuance. Gould's recordings
are highly cerebral. With Perahia, we get not just the
brain, but the whole body.
It is difficult
to adequately praise Murray Perahia's piano playing. That
he is currently hailed as the most important American
pianist of his generation only begins to do him justice.
His playing is at once lyrical and precise. Every note
is perfectly weighted. Each detail has been thought through
with great care, but the details never distract from the
sweep of the music; embellishments are elegant and executed
with great beauty - and always supportive of the broader
musical ideas. Perahia draws us into the heart of the
music with phrasing as natural as breathing, and a warmth
of tone that wraps us in a cashmere blanket of sound.
* * *
is a very different sort of pianist from Murray Perahia.
While Perahia's artistry is notable for its poetic expressiveness,
Kissin bowls us over with his steel fingers, wild romanticism,
and ferocious technique. He is Rubinstein, Horowitz, and
Schwartzenegger all rolled into one. He has sometimes
been criticized for allowing his technical mastery to
overpower the music. But in this new recording of Modest
Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition"
his keyboard pyrotechnics are perfectly suited to
the material at hand.
For many listeners,
Maurice Ravel's orchestration of "Pictures
at an Exhibition" may be more familiar
than Mussorgsky's original piano version. Ravel had a
flair for using the full resources of the orchestra to
produce brilliant coloristic effects. On this disc, Evgeny
Kissin makes almost symphonic use of the piano, handily
producing the variety of orchestral effects needed to
bring this music to life like a magician pulling an endless
series of colored silk scarves from a hat.
for this piece came from a memorial exhibit of the work
of his friend, the artist Victor Hartman. The composer
takes us on a guided tour of the exhibit, painting sound
pictures not only of the artwork on the gallery walls,
but of the composer himself walking through the exhibit.
The "promenade" theme which opens the piece
is then interspersed between sections, each time in slightly
altered form, reflecting the viewer's emotional response
to each picture. This is highly visual music and Kissin
gives us a vivid reading of it. Close your eyes and the
images of an old castle, of children playing in the Tuilleries
gardens, the bustle of a crowded marketplace in Limoges,
an ox-cart, a witch's hut, come to life on the backs of
The CD opens with
a Busoni transcription of Bach's Toccata, Adagio &
Fugue in D, for organ. Busoni employed various devices,
such as extensive use of all three of the piano's pedals
in different combinations, to mimic the sound of the organ.
But it is ultimately left to the pianist to conjure up
the grandeur of an enormous pipe organ with the breadth
and power of his playing. For many pianists, this music
falls under the category, "Don't try this at home."
But Kissin's wizardry makes the score's technical difficulties
vanish into thin air and allows us to focus on the music.
Rounding off this
CD is an exquisitely lyrical reading of "The Lark,"
a solo piano arrangement of a song by Mikhail Glinka.
In the song's original text, the lark expresses the hope
that ". . . someone will remember me and secretly
sigh." That's exactly how I feel when recalling Kissin's
performance of this little gem.
published in Weston Magazine, Summer 2002 issue)
© Barry Katz 2002