Pianist Navah Perlman gave new meaning to the term “recital” on Friday evening at the Hamilton Studio, as part of the Summerfest series of the Northwest Bach Festival.
Her program did, as one would expect, include performances of an attractive group of works for solo piano, but it also promised “little anecdotes from my life, and stories, and … slides in the background,” as she told The Spokesman-Review.
To a veteran of hundreds of normal piano recitals, this seemed both intriguing and off-putting: Intriguing, since Perlman, whom Festival Director Zuill Bailey describes as “one of the greatest people I have ever met,” is also the daughter of Itzhak Perlman, the most famous violinist alive. The prospect of gaining some insight into such an extraordinary family was irresistible. At the same time, one felt the suspicion that family anecdotes and photos might lessen the enjoyment of excellent performances of great works of music.
In the event, such suspicions were completely dispelled by the power of a genuinely creative artist to fuse diverse elements into a new and powerful whole.
The evening began impeccably enough with a vigorous and witty rendition of Scarlatti’s brilliant Sonata in C K. 159. Rather than highlighting her mastery of the piece’s technical challenges – trills, leaps and so on – Perlman concentrated on conveying its character as a courtly spectacle.
The image of a candle-lit ballroom filled with dancers overwhelmed any thoughts concerning fingers and pedals, and made one ready to hear from the artist who could create such strong dramatic ambiance in such a short space of time.
Perlman’s ensuing remarks about her family life did include amusing tidbits about her celebrated father (he loves watching the Mets on TV), but maintained a focus on the progress of the young girl’s understanding of the grounds of her father’s celebrity, and how that interacted with the development of her own self-knowledge and growth as an artist.
Sitting back down at the piano, Ms. Perlman gave a performance of Robert Schumann’s treasured “Arabeske” in C major Op. 18 that fully revealed her truly remarkable gifts as an interpreter.
Schumann’s “Arabeske” is in that class of music that, to appropriate pianist Artur Schnabel’s description of the music of Mozart, is “too easy for children, and too difficult for grownups.”
That is, the music is technically manageable for any intermediate student of piano (Perlman took it up when she was 10), but damnably resistant to attempts by even very famous performers to make sense of it.
Vladimir Horowitz often spoken of as the greatest pianist of the last century, played it all his life, and never managed to achieve the balance of tenderness and bluster – the essential aesthetic coherence – that Navah Perlman did on Friday night.
In constructing “Arabeske,” Schumann alternates the repetition of the opening melody, of a gently melancholic quality, with segments of sharply contrasting nature, much as Rimsky Korsakov binds together the episodes of his symphonic suite “Scheherazade” with recurring violin solos representing the voice of the narrator, Scheherazade, herself.
On Friday night, Navah Perlman was our Scheherazade, knitting together subtle adjustments of tempo and varying voices and moods of succeeding works by Prokofiev, Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin to form narrative sequences of penetrating power.
It was a quiet kind of virtuosity, but nonetheless amazing.
It soon became clear that this gift of narrative knit together both the musical and spoken portions of the program, becoming, in effect, the controlling principle of the evening, and its most remarkable feature.
Perlman’s informal manner in speaking about her life belied the scrupulous care with which she organized autobiographical details, both comic and tragic, into a portrait of an artist under construction.
This was most telling when she related the point in her life at which she began truly to understand how remarkable her father is, and to comprehend that he did not belong only to her and her mother and her siblings, but to the world and to history. That we all experience a similar struggle in objectifying our parents lent an aspect of universality to Perlman’s remarks that matched that of the music she performed.
The two other pianists already mentioned here, Artur Schnabel and Vladimir Horowitz, occupied opposite ends of the spectrum of piano performance in the 20th century, with Horowitz epitomizing the virtuoso school, seeking to astound the audience with unimaginable feats of technical mastery, and Schnabel focusing entirely on performing “music that was better than it can be played,” and conveying its essence to the audience.
We can place Navah Perlman squarely at Schnabel’s end of the spectrum, along with such noted pianists as Rudolf Serkin, Claudio Arrau and Leon Fleisher.
I doubt very much, however, that any of these luminaries could have brought off such a joining of modest informality and superb musicianship as we enjoyed on Friday night. By bringing such artistry to Spokane, Zuill Bailey and the supporters of the Northwest Bach Festival have increased the debt of gratitude we owe them.
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