Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Music review: Pianist Perez persuasive in music of Albeniz, Villa-Lobos

Vanessa Perez.

By Greg Stepanich

In an ambitious and wide-ranging recital Saturday night at the Steinway Gallery in Boca Raton,‭ ‬pianist Vanessa Perez brought poetry and power to music from Mozart to Villa-Lobos.

It was in the music of South America and Spain that Perez,‭ ‬a native of Venezuela,‭ ‬made the strongest impact,‭ ‬though in the six years since I last saw her at the Steinway Gallery,‭ ‬she has become a more accomplished player in the older canonical repertoire,‭ ‬and that bodes well for her journey toward pianistic completeness.

In her opening work,‭ ‬the lovely Sonata in F,‭ ‬K.‭ ‬332,‭ ‬of Mozart,‭ ‬Perez showed that she could play in the spare,‭ ‬pedal-minimum way that pianists usually perform this music,‭ ‬which puts a premium on evenness of notes and precision of harmony.‭ ‬Perez‭ (‬who took the repeat in the first movement‭) ‬gave us a large-toned,‭ ‬big Mozart,‭ ‬strong on drama and lyricism.

The special glory of this sonata is the second movement,‭ ‬an opulent operatic aria that is one of Mozart‭’‬s most beautiful such utterances,‭ ‬and Perez played it winningly,‭ ‬taking care not to overdo the elaborate variations of the theme in the second half.‭ ‬Overall,‭ ‬her execution needed to be a little cleaner,‭ ‬especially in the middle of the first movement,‭ ‬where she lost her way temporarily,‭ ‬and in the very tricky different sections of the finale:‭ ‬Without a pedal to cover mishaps,‭ ‬everything has to be as faultless as possible,‭ ‬or the music loses some of its cohesion.

Perez has just recorded the complete Preludes of Chopin,‭ ‬and the two five-flat ones,‭ ‬No.‭ ‬15‭ ‬in D-flat and No.‭ ‬16‭ ‬in B-flat minor,‭ ‬came next.‭ ‬In the No.‭ ‬15‭ (‬Raindrop‭)‬,‭ ‬we heard the most characteristic elements of Perez‭’‬s art,‭ ‬a highly colored,‭ ‬deeply Romantic style of hothouse languidness that was well-suited for the sweetness of the music.‭ ‬The tempestuous minor-key middle section could have used some more mystery and drama,‭ ‬which would have made the E major climax more exciting.‭

The No.‭ ‬16‭ ‬Prelude is a whirlwind,‭ ‬with cascades of angry scales running up and down over a thumping,‭ ‬leaping bass.‭ ‬Here,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬her runs were not as precise as they needed to be,‭ ‬particularly at the outset,‭ ‬but she finished in appropriately thunderous style.

The Chopin Fantasy‭ (‬in F minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬49‭) ‬that followed gave evidence of much hard work at the keyboard,‭ ‬and Perez was‭ ‬generally successful in giving her audience a good musical narrative that took listeners from the almost-offhand opening through the peaks and valleys of Chopin‭’‬s intense musical landscape.‭ ‬She built nicely from the dead-march of the opening through the first section,‭ ‬the proof being in the way she played the big unison octaves,‭ ‬setting them up each time as signposts for listeners to orient themselves by.

Her technique in the Fantasy was impressive,‭ ‬especially in the repeated climbs to the outer reaches of‭ ‬the keyboard,‭ ‬which are among the most perilous measures in the piece.‭ ‬In the B major‭ ‬Lento sostenuto sections,‭ ‬she was all dreaminess,‭ ‬all languor,‭ ‬making for a very effective contrast.‭ ‬The only part that lacked enough contrast was the marching-bass version of the theme,‭ ‬which works best when there‭’‬s a sudden change of dynamic and pianistic approach‭; ‬here it was too much like everything around it.‭ ‬In sum,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬this was a strong performance of this masterwork.

With the second half of the program,‭ ‬music of Albéniz and Villa-Lobos,‭ ‬Perez was on very comfortable ground.‭ ‬The first of two pieces from the first‭ ‬Suite Espanola‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬47‭)‬,‭ ‬Granada,‭ ‬eloquently showcased her attractive tone production,‭ ‬but in the well-known‭ ‬Asturias that followed,‭ ‬things were a little too dry,‭ ‬and the tempo on the slow side.

Perez has played selections from ‭Albeniz's Iberia‭ ‬for years,‭ ‬and Saturday night she offered‭ ‬Triana,‭ ‬from Book‭ ‬2.‭ ‬She played it with verve and plenty of color,‭ ‬letting the midsection theme sing out,‭ ‬and doing a good job of‭ ‬setting the final pages up for the surprise loud reentrance of the main theme at the end.

It was in the five pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos that Perez really made her mark at the recital.‭ ‬A Lendo do Caboclo‭ (‬Legend of the Caboclo‭)‬,‭ ‬which came first,‭ ‬is a moody,‭ ‬lush piece in which the pianist‭’‬s skill at playing with tenderness was evident.‭ ‬Her approach should make her an exemplary Debussy player,‭ ‬and it would be worthwhile to hear her in that repertory.

She closed with four pieces from Volume‭ ‬1‭ ‬of Villa-Lobos‭’‬s‭ ‬A Prole do Bebe‭ (‬The Baby‭’‬s Family‭)‬,‭ ‬which in this volume describes dolls of different types.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a landmark work from‭ ‬1918,‭ ‬and it made a scandalous impression on Brazilian audiences of the time.‭ ‬In the brighter pieces‭ ‬– Branquinha,‭ ‬Moreninha and‭ ‬O Polchinello‭ ‬– Perez‭’‬s fingerwork was sharp and clear,‭ ‬and her sense of rhythm aggressive and exciting.‭ ‬In the other piece,‭ ‬A Pobrezinha,‭ ‬she played with a blurry intimacy that was most affecting.

Perez returned for an encore of Albeniz‭’‬s‭ ‬Granada,‭ ‬played for‭ ‬Piano Lovers founder Abram Kreeger,‭ ‬whose recording device was apparently not on when she went through it the first time.‭ ‬It was a kind gesture from Perez,‭ ‬and this performance was better than the first‭ ‬– warmer,‭ ‬deeper and prettier.‭

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