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As Good As It Gets 

Wednesday, Mar 21 2001
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Murray Perahia‘s concert at the Cerritos Center last week strengthened my conviction that he is the most satisfactory, the most honorable, American pianist. Watching him at work, you are touched by his sublime confidence. He knows what he’s good at, and he tells you that what he‘s good at is also what he loves. He has little to do with the knock-’em-down repertory that serves other pianists as hobbyhorses; Bach dines well at his table, but not Rach. At Cerritos he shared the stage and the program with the much-loved small British ensemble the Academy of St. Martin--in-the-Fields; he performed concertos by Bach and Mozart, conducting from the keyboard, then stood to lead Mozart‘s 40th Symphony. He has often led his own concerto performances; now he is branching into standup conducting as well. Wish him well; his performance of that troubled, overpowering masterwork among Mozart’s symphonies was forthright and beautifully proportioned. Using a work of that seriousness to end a concert, instead of tucking it in as a curtain raiser as some conductors do with Mozart, was further proof of Perahia‘s high intelligence.

What’s my favorite Mozart piano concerto? people feel the need to ask. “The last one I‘ve heard,” is my standard reply. Right now, therefore, it’s the G-major, K. 453, which Perahia played last week. It‘s one of the more lighthearted on the list, a creation of light and air and even -- as Mozart himself confessed -- bird song. In most of his mature concertos, special miracles happen when Mozart brings the orchestra’s woodwinds forward to mingle their own dreams with those of the pianist. In this concerto there is such a passage midway in the first movement, at the start of the development: flute, oboes and bassoons melding into a mellow dialogue about nothing in particular, up and down the scale, as the piano‘s triplets surround them in flickering soft lights. This is chamber music at its most enlightened, a conversation among equals who know how to blend without losing individuality. A virtuoso pianist in a large-scale performance -- the noble Rubinstein, say, or the elder Serkin -- backed at full volume by a symphony orchestra, can miss the whole point of this quiet miracle, and I have the discs to prove it. At Cerritos, even through cough-ridden air as if a siege of black lung had settled in, that mysterious moment became magic, and so did the moments around it.

Then there was Bach, the same D-minor Concerto whose powers and eloquence Andras Schiff had convincingly demonstrated with the Philharmonic last November. Yet there were new things to discover, above all the way Perahia shaped the flexible, rhapsodic one-finger melody that hangs in the air like a meditation, a benediction, above the gruff, stentorian, repeated bass line in the slow movement. You talk about Bach as the monarch of musical squareness; go listen to that remarkable movement -- on Perahia’s new Sony disc, or the Schiff, or the crazy-wonderful Glenn Gould -- and find your horizons broadened, your estimates of “square” shattered.

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It was, in case all this gush hasn‘t gotten through, a marvelous concert, one of two extraordinary, uplifting, unforgettable events so far this season.

The other was, of course, the Orange County Philharmonic Society’s Vivaldi program at Costa Mesa, with the incomparable Cecilia Bartoli and the lively, enterprising small ensemble called Il Giardino Armonico, who together provided a garden of harmonies such as only the serenest angels might provide. It‘s tempting to draw parallels between the two supreme artists whose praises I sing herewith. They share an off-the-wall definition of appropriate repertory. As Perahia’s abjuring the Rach 3, so Bartoli‘s abstaining from Carmen or Amneris; yet the one plays Mozart and Bach, and the other sings Vivaldi.

She sang -- a varied and generous program fattened with a garland of encores that cantilevered well past quitting time -- and each new number was a further revelation of how little we know about this revolutionary Italian composer who taught young girls most of his life and composed music of a depth of passion such that no young girl then or now should be allowed to hear unchaperoned. The arias sang of love requited, and of the unrequited itch. A mother’s blood turns icy at her dead son‘s ghost, and the stillness is wrenched by turns of harmony that Mahler, two centuries later, might countenance. The breezes tell the shepherdess of love, and we must giggle along. The repertory, still too little known, is rich and glorious; what has happened in the Handel rediscovery must now take place for Vivaldi.

What is amazing above all is the care and wisdom that Bartoli has come to lavish on this music; you don’t expect that much explorative zeal from an operatic superstar at the height of her career. (Read Manuela Hoelterhoff‘s Bartoli book, Cinderella & Company, the best revelation there is on what it’s like to be a diva in operadom‘s daily snake pit, and you’ll glean more reasons to respect Bartoli‘s high art.) Her technique, above all her command of divisions in the coloratura singing -- four notes in the space of one, then eight, then 16 -- was close to awesome that night; pushing on toward 11 p.m., it was as fresh and lovable as at 8:30. She has really worked her way into the repertory; unlike the typical tour date, when the diva comes out and sings through her latest album, only two or three of her numbers were also on her Vivaldi disc (on Decca). Are there discernible horizons for an artist of that much skill and intelligence and the power to make strong-willed music critics weak in her presence? Why should there be?

I had entertained a few qualms about the Giardino Armonico, brought on by an overly cute TV promo of a few years back that smacked of Vivaldi vandalism -- but no. Either the group has grown up or I have; their work with Bartoli, and in a couple of concertos nicely interspersed to give the diva some breathing time, became an honorable part of the love feast that night. I am not ordinarily given to superlatives (or “faves,” as one thuggish acquaintance calls them), but if I have ever attended a better vocal recital than this, it would have to be in some other incarnation, on some other planet.

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