The 250 years since the death of Johann Sebastian Bach have been the most revolutionary in human history, so it is not that surprising to realize that the music that he composed is a considerable distance from that which we hear today. Even the best efforts of the early music movement cannot close this perception gap entirely and certainly in the case of the music for the keyboard the modern product is at best a faint echo of the creator's intent. Bach undoubtedly did not write this repertoire with the piano in mind since it did not exist, except in incipient form, during his lifetime. He did not even write his pieces with an eye for posterity, the notion of a "classical music" an invention of a later time. Primarily he plied his mathematical trade in order to provide food for his overcrowded table and to ease the financial tensions of his unusually harried life. Bach himself created the ultimate musical compromise, and, as the architect of the tacit agreement between performer and audience to hear two different notes as if they were the same (the "well tempering" concept), allowed for the development of the modern modulation, the key to unlocking the floodgates of Western art music. As the most practical of entertainers, he would have had little problem with his music being presented in its modern form, as long as there was some monetary gain on the horizon.
Bach was, at least to some extent, appreciated in his own lifetime (although primarily as a performer) and then relegated to the dustbin until his "discovery" by Mendelssohn and Schumann. He remained a curiosity throughout the 19th century, regressing rapidly from an excitingly exotic master of the past to a bothersome old fogy as the Romantic age matured (Brahms was fired as music director of the Vienna Philharmonic for programming too much Bach and Handel). His keyboard music, now played on the modern pianoforte, ebbed and flowed with the fashion of the times. Another entire layer of obfuscation was created by the prodigy Ferruccio Busoni, who unashamedly reworked the simple and pure forms of the Leipzig master into opulent essays of post-Romantic emotionalism. These new pieces are totally modern, so transformed from the originals as to make them entirely different creations, as removed from the sensibilities of the 18th century court as are the contemporary symphonies of Scriabin. The Busoni transcriptions began to take on a life of their own almost immediately, forever establishing their performers as exponents of their own interpretive art and not at all interested in the slavish recreation of the lost sounds of the past.
As befits a student of Horszowski, Sunday's pianist's technique was based on economy of motion. There are no big gestures and when there is a cross handed passage it is all the more exciting for its visual coordination. Murray Perahia, who has impressed since his teenaged days at Marlboro in his abilities to think like a composer, built a strong edifice ultimately expressing with his golden tones (and the expressions of his face) the joy of pure logic of the French Suite No. 5. I never remember whether it is left brain or right, but I am undoubtedly the opposite of Bach and yet, in a performance like this one, I too can revel in the glory of his ordered God. Mr. Perahia is able to project this music across the centuries and hit an angst-ridden modern target at its bull's eye.
Orson Welles once responded to an interviewer's question about his abilities to transform the classics of literature onto film by expounding on the virtues of Verdi and Bellini (he meant Rossini) in their interpretations of Othello. Ultimately, Welles theorized, the finished contemporary opera is the work to be judged, not on its faithfulness to the Shakespearean original, but rather on its own merits. With practitioners like Murray Perahia, the big toned and big boned structures of the modern piano are meritorious indeed for the timeless music of "old Bach".
Elsewhere, Perahia plied his lapidary accuracy to the Opus 90 Sonata of Beethoven, the one of the thirty-two that Artur Rubinstein, by his own admission, did not understand until well into his adult years. Perahia was suitably thoughtful and reflective in four pieces from the Brahms Klavierstuecke, Opus 119, even as the crowd interrupted with loud applause after the third morsel, the C Major Intermezzo. I suspect that this may have been a bit of audience terrorism, as many of them were clearly phoning each other throughout the concert, ringtones making an unwanted but insistent obbligato at more than a few delicate moments. Schubert's A Major Sonata, D664 was delivered with superbly evocative Romantic gestures and excellent flow, understated tastefully and really quite moving.
Mr. Perahia was sailing along until he ran aground on some assorted Chopin. Firstly, his pinpoint accuracy began to fail him, but much more significant was an interpretive disconnect with the music. Particularly surprising in such a composer's advocate, he played the four works just as they are written in the score. What's wrong with that? Well, taking away any sense of rubato left the small essays (one each of polonaise, prelude, mazurka and scherzo) feeling skeletal and cold. One expects this from a more forensic pianist, say Maurizio Pollini, but it was a bit disquieting for Murray Perahia.
Photo Credit: Nana Watanabe