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Review: Pianist Murray Perahia dazzles at Valley Performing Arts

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In his recital on Thursday at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge, his first in Southern California since 2009, Murray Perahia displayed a breathtaking drive and imagination playing the music of Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin.

The 66-year-old pianist seemed especially focused. Opening with Bach's French Suite No. 4, Perahia's dreamy rendition of the Allemande gave way to a visceral feel for the rhythms of these Baroque dances, including a jig-like Courante and a crisply articulated Gavotte, Menuet and Gigue.

Brilliantly colored and conveyed with dazzling speed and control, the suite in Perahia's hands became an irresistible invitation to the dance. If this performance is any indication, it will be fascinating to hear all six of Bach's French Suites on Perahia's upcoming recording.

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Once viewed as a rather reserved musician of refined taste and judgment, Perahia became a more explosive interpreter of the Classical and Romantic repertory after studying with Vladimir Horowitz in the 1980s. That influence could still be heard in his tumultuous rendition of Beethoven's Sonata No. 23, "Appassionata."

Musicologists often point to the humor in many of Beethoven's sonatas, something he learned from Haydn, but there's also the anger and frustration of an artist reaching for transcendence. The pianos of Beethoven's day must have taken quite a lot of punishment, because even the modern Steinway Perahia played barely survived the abrupt contrasts and angry outbursts of the sonata's outer movements.

But Perahia's risk-taking reading of the "Appassionata" paid off. He demonstrated why this sonata continues to be revolutionary, while maintaining dynamic control and producing a large tone that never became unpleasant, even during the torrential perpetual motion finale and coda.

The beautiful melody in the central Andante provided a brief respite from the tumult, with Perahia's left hand conveying details in the bass usually skimmed over by other pianists.

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After intermission, Perahia returned with a charming rendition of Schumann's gentle "Papillons" ("Butterflies"), 12 dance movements portraying a masked ball. At one point, Perahia's slightly ungraceful gesture in the bass wittily suggested a dancer clumsily stepping on his partner's toes. 

In Chopin's Nocturne, Op. 62, No. 1, Perahia sensitively conveyed the intricate layers of counterpoint beneath the main melody, and in a group of Études -- Nos. 1 and 5 from Op. 25, and No. 4 from Op. 10 -- he generated plenty of warm lyricism and high-velocity bravura.

A virile reading of Chopin's Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, full of Byronic sweep and tenderness, brought the recital to a close and the audience to its feet. The pianist, understandably looking tired, offered Schubert's E flat Impromptu (Op. 90/2) as an encore, dispatching its brilliant right-hand passagework with apparent ease.

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