Pianist Murray Perahia played another recital at Duke this week, returning to a venue he knows well and to an audience that has come to know his artistry well, too, over the years. The late Allan Hadley Bone, long-time conductor of the Duke Symphony Orchestra, “discovered” Perahia and brought him to Durham in the early ‘70s, after having heard him play at Marlboro, near which summer music camp the Maestro and his wife Dorothy had a lovely summer home. Chances are that first Perahia appearance here was in Baldwin Auditorium, not Page Auditorium, but the venerable home of the venerable Artists Series, now functioning under the umbrella of Duke Performances, has, since then, hosted most of the visiting pianist’s local performances, although he has occasionally turned up elsewhere in the region.

This time around, the American artist – who lives in the U.K. – has limited his tour to seven cities, and he’s garnered raves everywhere he’s been. The “tour program” is a conservative one with an exceptionally austere first half devoted to the last Bach partita (in E minor, S.830) and one of the shortest Beethoven sonatas (No. 30, in E, Op. 109); the rest of the lineup consisted of Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Op. 15 (with the famous “Träumerei” coming in the middle of the 13 relatively short sections) and a Chopin group comprising an etude (“Aeolian Harp,” in A-Flat, Op. 25/1), three mazurkas (in A-Flat, Op. 59/2, in C-Sharp minor, Op. 50/3, and in F-Sharp minor, Op. 59/3), and the fourth Scherzo (in E, Op. 54).

There were two encores, the first of which constituted the evening’s most modern work – that was Brahms’ C major Intermezzo (Op. 119/3); the other was Schubert’s E-Flat Impromptu (D.899/2). Perahia’s CD of the 1st, 5th, and 6th partitas has recently been released, so the inclusion of the 6th in this program was most likely tied to marketing. That was of course the evening’s 18th-century offering, and the rest – yes, including the encores – came from the 19th century. Perahia seems to share a close kinship with all these composers, and there’s a certain physical resemblance to Brahms as seen in profile, if one imagines the composer clean-shaven and closely-cropped on top. Indeed there are few pianists who are more convincing today in works by these hallowed creators – although that said, it would be good of Perahia to take up some music – any music of quality – by his contemporaries, at some point, for today’s new works – or at least a few off them – are destined to be tomorrow’s classics….

But don’t review what wasn’t there, a mentor once advised…. What was there was predictably excellent. Few if any pianists are ever better prepared than Perahia, few have given their programs such evident thought and study, and few are as well-endowed, technically. His exceptionally restrained platform manner, his supremely controlled physical bearing, and his conservative artistic world-view can result in an initial “what’s all the shouting about?” perception, but he really is one of the great artists of our time, and those who re-visit him as he revisits us learn over time that it’s all in the playing, which is where it should be. Thus his Bach is probably the best way to hear Bach if one opts for big-piano Bach, and his Beethoven is likewise close to ideal if one eschews the fortepiano crowd. There can be even fewer quibbles about his Schumann and Chopin, for these folks are closer to our time – although one can make strong arguments for “period” instruments in even late Romantic works like the Brahms encore played on this occasion.  For sure, Perahia is the great Poet of the piano – of our very best players, he’s easily the most lyrical, the most refined, and the most consistent, too.

Our colleague Tim Lindeman wrote about a recent all-Mendelssohn program, given by UNCG’s Andrew Willis on an 1841 Bösendorfer;  it’s interesting to consider what kind of impact Perahia might have made, had he had some older pianos at his disposal, instead of the slick modern Steinway in Page. (There are lots of old pianos at Duke, in one of the best instrument collections in America – see http://music.duke.edu/resources/dumic.php [inactive 1/10].) This new piano, one of four recently purchased by Duke, resulted from a complaint by Leon Fleisher about the then-sad state of the University’s instruments, and it and the others are definite improvements.

Perahia’s playing was – as usual – miraculously clear and even, with wondrously-realized phrasing, breath-taking illumination of the lines (including some internal ones that in the hands of lesser artists are sometimes obscured), and some of the best-managed, most finely-shaded dynamics in captivity. It was all gorgeous and impressive and refined and sometimes predictable, for those of us who know Perahia’s work – or think we do. There were ah-ha! moments, but they stemmed from revelations of what had always been there, rather than innovative new interpretations.

All that said, however, the impression Perahia made in the hall was apparently directly related to where one sat. Heard from the back of the room on the main floor, deep under the overhang, the sound was often distant and deficient in the lower register – for of course mid-range and upper frequencies tend to carry better. Patrons up front on the main floor may have sensed (as one reported to me) that some of the sound went over their heads. Folks in the balcony probably had the best deal if they were short enough (or skinny enough) to fit comfortably into the cramped seats. There are several good seats in Page, but snaring them is a bit like winning the lottery.

So for assessments of what this program sounded like in different venues, see reviews by Mark Swed from the LA Times –– and by the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette, from three days before this concert. As it happens, this same perceptive critic has recently blogged about the impact of acoustics on performances, and that’s relative here, too, in view of the problems presented to artists and arts enthusiasts by Page Auditorium, one of our region’s most problematic halls; see http://voices.washingtonpost.com/the-classical-beat/2009/10/halls_re-sounding.html#more.

Now Page wasn’t always at the bottom of the barrel. Years ago, the two Memorials – Memorial Hall, in Chapel Hill, and Memorial Auditorium, in Raleigh – were notoriously poor concert rooms, and Reynolds – the coliseum, not Duke’s theater – was even worse. Still, people packed these venues and loved what they heard. What’s changed is that we now have so many new and renovated halls – but Page has been largely untouched. It’s time for more than a facelift there.

And till that much-needed surgery is funded, it’s time for Duke to do all it can to make getting there and getting away from there as painless as possible. That means opening up parking on Chapel Drive, instead of having security people protect hundreds of empty spaces just minutes before concerts in Page. That means redesigning access to the much-touted new deck to facilitate easy entry and egress – the one-way-in, one-way-out business is for the birds. That means not permitting the $5-a-pop deck parking gurus to close off the entry-level floor till all the upper levels are full – it should of course be the other way ‘round. That means stationing an officer under the stop light on the way out from the deck, to clear the traffic promptly when concerts are over. And finally, if Duke really cares to have the public visit its campus and patronize its cultural offerings, someone should try to find at least a few free parking places. In Raleigh for sure, and even at UNC, you don’t have to pay to park every single time.

The next concert in Duke’s ongoing Piano Recital series will be in Reynolds Theater on October 29 (not October 30, as announced prior to the Perahia program!). See our calendar for details.