On my way into the theater Tuesday night for Murray Perahia's first recital in Walt Disney Concert Hall, I had the compulsion to wash my hands very thoroughly. This had nothing to do with fear of catching the H1N1 virus, but with the fact that Perahia is a pristine pianist like no other.
The 6-year-old Disney Steinway was just back from its summer servicing. A rare early October rainstorm, cleansing the hall and streets outside, felt like a good omen. I wonder how many of those who purchased a copy of the pianist's latest CD of three Bach partitas in the Disney shop after the concert went home and vacuumed under the sofa before playing it.
Perahia's extraordinary pianism is a sacrament of purification and a kind of return to an age of pianistic innocence. He appears on stage like a cleric who barely acknowledges his audience. There can be no silly business when it comes to the sanctified masters: Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin. On Tuesday his duty was to lead in the adoration of the keyboard.
The playing, from the first note of Bach's Sixth Partita, which began the program, to the last of Chopin's Fourth Scherzo, which ended it, was flawless. Perahia's tone is a marvel. Notes bloom in the air, breathing its oxygen and growing radiant before one's ears.
Perahia has been called a classicist, in part because his early fame was in his clear-headed recordings of Mozart piano concertos in the 1980s. But at Disney he seemed nothing of the sort. His Bach was lucid, elegant, bell-like and beautifully phrased, but closer in style to the way Rachmaninoff treated the composer than do today's creative anachronistic harpsichordists. Perahia may understand early music period practice, and he added embellishments, but he gave them the weight of melody. Simple lines became complex ones. Readily explicable music moved in the direction of the inexplicable.
I found Beethoven's Sonata No. 30, Opus 109, trance-inducing, so I can't be sure if Perahia lost his way in this late, transformative sonata or I lost mine. In no other sonata did Beethoven pare away the inessential as here, but Perahia made what seemed like a fetish of getting inside the notes. The lyrical first movement was slow, heavy and didn't flow so much as overflow.
Each gorgeous chord of the ineffably lovely theme of the variation movement was a monument, and I found it wrenching to move on to the next. By the time Perahia had reached the climax, with the transcendental trills, arpeggios and high-register syncopated signals, he had left the earthly realm for another.
Beethoven comes back down to earth with a final, incomparably touching repeat of theme. Perahia, still in the clouds, played from afar, from an unsullied domain.
A PhD dissertation's worth of psychological meaning probably could be extracted from Perahia's idealizing of a child's experience in Schumann's "Kinderszenen" (Scenes From Childhood), which he played after intermission. "Traumerei" (Dreaming) is the centerpiece, and in it Perahia stopped time as he drifted right back into the late Beethovenian ether. In the last of the 13 short pieces, "The Poet Speaks," Schumann closes the book. Perahia lingered over that ending as if loath to leave his romanticized realm where every child is a little angel with clean hands.
A Chopin group -- the "Aeolian Harp" Etude, three Mazurkas from the Opuses 50 and 59 groups and the Fourth Scherzo -- concluded the recital. Perahia once worked with Horowitz, from whom he must have learned how to make 10 fingers do the work of 20. Notes flew by, but none was exaggerated or muddied.
The mazurkas did not have much of a dance element to them, but other than that, this was extraordinary Chopin playing. Perahia asked much of the Scherzo, which he treated not as a brilliant, capricious entertainment but a grand pianistic statement.
Even in Chopin, no note was, for Perahia, unimportant and embellishment was always substance. The heavenly melody in the middle was a return to the innocent dreams of childhood and a better world. He ended in a blaze of glory.