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 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.