CD Reviews

by Barry Katz

Bach: Keyboard Concertos Nos. 3, 5, 6, 7
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Murray Perahia, pianist and conductor
Sony Classical #SK89.690

Mussorgsky: 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 grand.

Another suggestion 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.

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Evgeny Kissin 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.

Mussorgsky's inspiration 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 your eyelids.

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.

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(Originally published in Weston Magazine, Summer 2002 issue)

© Barry Katz 2002

Barry Katz

Westport, Connecticut

tel: 203-505-6313 fax: 203-227-9629 e-mail:

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