Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances concluded its four-concert Piano Series for the 2016–2017 season with the San Francisco recital debut of Spanish pianist Javier Perianes. As was observed last month, Perianes made his San Francisco debut in June of 2015 with the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Charles Dutoit in a performance of Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.” Last night half of the program was devoted to the Spanish aesthetic of the early twentieth century and the impact of Spanish composers in Paris. In contrast, the first half consisted entirely of music by Franz Schubert.
Falla figured significantly in the second half of the program. Perianes concluded the evening with a suite of piano arrangements of four movements from Falla’s score for the one-act ballet “El amor brujo” (love, the magician) prepared by Falla himself. This was preceded by a suite of a different nature, consisting of selections by Falla, Claude Debussy, and Isaac Albéniz, all oriented around the theme of Granada and played without interruptions for applause.
This latter suite was probably inspired by its opening selection, “Pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy.” This began as Falla’s only composition for solo guitar, composed about two years after Debussy’s death with a title unabashedly appropriated from Maurice Ravel. Falla then arranged the music as a piano solo and subsequently orchestrated it for his four-movement suite Homenajes (homages). The Debussy homage includes a direct quote from “La soirée dans Grenade” (evening in Granada), the second movement of Debussy’s Estampes (prints); so Perianes played this “source composition” immediately after the Falla “memorial.” He then went on to play two of Debussy’s “Spanish preludes,” “La puerta del vino” (wine gate) from the second book and “La sérénade interrompue” (interrupted serenade) from the first. He concluded this “Spanish journey” with the “El Albaicín” movement (named for a district of Granada) from the third book of Albéniz’ Iberia collection.
This approach worked out with a surprisingly coherent sense of continuity. Perianes clearly appreciated the distinctive voices of each of the contributing composers, not to mention their different approaches to technical demands. As a result, his “fabricated suite” offered up a survey through which one could appreciate both the commonalities and the differences. Such imaginative approaches to programming deserve to be encountered more often.
Each of the four “El amor brujo” selections, on the other hand, had its own self-contained rhetoric; and none of them really required familiarity with the narrative of the ballet (particularly since they were not performed in “order of appearance”). Furthermore, Perianes’ command of virtuosity was always solid and appropriately attuned to each of the selections performed during this second half of the program. He was clearly in his comfort zone, and the pleasure he took in playing this music was just as clearly contagious.
His approach to Schubert was another matter. He began with the D. 664 sonata in A major, followed by the D. 946 set of three piano pieces. If D. 664 is not Schubert’s most understated sonata, it probably still stands as his most understated mature sonata. Quietude is the prevailing rhetoric, and Schubert handles it so well that the climax of the first movement is also the most hushed moment, the final cadence that turns out to be the linchpin for connecting, almost seamlessly, to the second movement.
Unfortunately, Perianes’ command of Spanish quietude did not translate effectively into an effective approach to Schubertian quietude. Indeed, too many of Perianes’ rhetorical gestures went over the top with supercharged dynamic contours, which undermined the evanescent qualities that make this music so compelling. That aggressive style was a bit more effective with the D. 946 pieces, but there remained a sense that Perianes never quite grasped the overall shape of each of the pieces. He was most at home with the ternary form of the first piece; but, when Schubert headed off into more adventurous territory in the remaining two, Perianes too often left the impression that he had gotten lost in the woods.
Perianes was more in his comfort zone with his encore selection. He chose to play Frédéric Chopin’s 1830 nocturne in C-sharp minor, P. 1/16 in the catalog of Józef Michał Chomiński and probably written prior to the first published nocturnes, the Opus 9 set of three, but not published until after the composer’s death. In this case Perianes seemed to show better appreciation of the impact of understatement as a rhetorical device. In contrast to his approach to Schubert, he knew how to make this music speak (if not sing) without ever forcing any of the expressive devices. This definitely left his audience departing in a good mood.