Perahia Plays Chopin

0 of 5 stars

Concerto No.1 in E minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op.11
Concerto No.2 in F minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op.21
Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.35
Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op.58
The Four Ballades – in G minor, Op.23; in A minor, Op.38; in A flat, Op.47; in F minor, Op.52
Waltzes – Grande valse brillante, Op.18; Grand Valse in A flat, Op. 42
Nocturne in F, Op.15/1
Mazurkas – in F minor, Op.7; in A minor, Op.17/4; in D. Op.33/2
Etudes – in E, Op.10/3; in C sharp minor, Op.10/4
Etudes, Opp.10 & 25
Preludes, Op.28 [selection – in B minor, A, and D flat]
Impromptus – in A flat, Op.29; in F sharp, Op.36; in G flat, Op.51
Fantasie-Impromptu, Op.66
Barcarolle, Op.60
Berceuse, Op.57
Fantasie, Op.49

Murray Perahia (piano)

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta [concertos]

Recorded between 1973 and 2001

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: July 2010
88697648232 (5 CDs)
Duration: 4 hours 48 minutes



At the time of this set’s release (July 2010), Murray Perahia is in his early-sixties and it is easy to forget the huge excitement that was generated when he won the 1972 Leeds International Pianoforte Competition. Shortly afterwards he recorded these Chopin sonatas for CBS, followed by the complete Preludes (Opus 28). He went on to make a series of great recordings for that label of music by Schumann, Bartók, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Mozart (the complete piano concertos). In 1990 disaster struck when an injury to his right thumb and subsequent complications kept him away from the concert platform for several years. Since then he has had recurring problems with his right-hand. During this hiatus he said that the music of Bach was his major solace and during recitals and in the recording studio he has produced some of the greatest Bach-playing ever heard. In addition to performing, he was co-artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival and is now working on an Urtext edition of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

Whenever you read an interview with Perahia it is obvious that he a profoundly musical and serious man and this certainly shows in his playing. Indeed he has said that performers have to learn to play for themselves and not the audience. He is not a super-virtuoso. In concerts there will be wrong notes and the sound is not huge. When Perahia walks on to play he looks almost diffident and when playing there are no ostentatious physical gestures. But in any age this man would rank as a great pianist as these recordings of Chopin amply demonstrate.

Chopin’s music is obviously dear to Perahia’s heart. His first recording after the injury was of the Ballades and several years ago in the Royal Festival Hall (London) he gave a Chopin recital that contained the greatest performance of the B minor Sonata I have ever heard, or expect to hear. This five-disc Sony set contains most of his Chopin recordings, but unforgivably and inexplicably omits the complete Preludes. The set comes as a concertina with rather short booklet notes.

Zubin Mehta. Photograph: Oded AntmanThe concertos were recorded in 1989 at concerts and are somewhat handicapped by ill-defined, glutinous orchestral sound. Fortunately the reproduction of the piano is much better and the overall balance is good. In the E minor work things are almost perfect. Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic provide a muscular but sensitive accompaniment to Perahia’s magical playing. His tone is limpidly translucent, rubato beautifully judged; there is power and attack when needed and the rhythms dance. In the slow movement you will rarely here such ravishing sound, flow and line and yet there is a lack of true emotion and feeling. The Second Concerto is let down by a lack of tension in the orchestral introduction and Perahia’s angular and disjointed playing of the first subject. There are some great moments here, but the sweep of the First is missing.

Taking the solo music in the order of recording, both of the sonatas display a well-nigh perfect combination of poetry and drama. In the first movement of the B flat minor Perahia uses the exposition repeat to change his phrasing and although he slows for the second subject the onward flow is not disturbed and the development has compelling impetus and integrity. Nothing is flashy and virtuoso display is entirely absent. The scherzo is rhythmically buoyant with little change of tempo for the trio and the phrasing is wondrous. There is a quiet sense of authority in the ‘Marche funèbre’ and the central section lives and breathes in a quite exquisite way. The finale is a true presto. You could transpose such comments onto the Third Sonata – and here the performance of the slow movement is simply the finest ever recorded, Perahia making this a profoundly moving nocturnal reverie, which stands as an object-lesson in the art of playing Chopin. Although the finale has power and fantasy, with the second subject played as a scherzando, Perahia doesn’t quite capture the sheer excitement of that Royal Festival Hall performance, but it is still an exceptional account. All these years on, no finer coupling of these works exists. In terms of sound, the image is fuller than on the original LP, but it has also been moved forward, which is regrettable.

Perahia next recorded the Preludes (in New York). That performance too has rarely been equalled, but Sony only finds space for three of them here! Yet moving the Impromptus to disc 3 would have given sufficient space for the complete Preludes – and four of the discs play for less than an hour – so why wasn’t this done? So, of the three we now have, the control and introspection of the B minor is superb, as is the insouciance of the A major; and in the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, the balancing of the hands and voicing of the eight-quavers-in-a-bar ostinato, is exemplary, as is the subtle rubato, a rapt Bach-like contemplation. The sound is good, but the LP has a greater sense of space and acoustic and better captures Perahia’s unique sound.

The remaining shorter pieces on disc 3 come from 1985 and all are outstanding, but the last three deserve special mention. In the Barcarolle the tempo is (as marked) a relaxed allegretto and, unlike so many other pianists, Perahia plays the first section softly – the opening chord glows – and doesn’t pound out the central section after the change of key: crass, barn-storming insensitivity are nowhere to be found. Perhaps Perahia noticed that there are only a few fortes marked and one ff at the start of the last bar and even here the double octaves have a diminuendo sign! The Berceuse flows gently with superb dynamic shading, touch and rubato – only Solomon has done it better. Chopin gave performers (without realising it?) carte-blanche in the opening of the Fantasie by marking it Tempo di marcia – Grave (although Grave is not in all editions). After that, all you get is a Lento sostenuto section, a return to Tempo 1 and two bars of Adagio sostenuto to introduce the Allegro assai coda. Perahia follows these markings and resists the temptation to overtly speed up. This gives the work a sense of unstoppable momentum and grandeur. Here, once again, Solomon came to mind – he only read music and was not interested in posturing.

The first recording Perahia made after the injury was of the four Ballades, in 1994. In the booklet note, it is suggested that in some way his time-away had led to a deepening of the pianist’s art, a contentious remark, in that like all great performers Perahia’s art was evolving and it is dangerous to assume that the uncertainty, frustration and suffering that this enforced absence must have caused, would – per se – have made him a better pianist. The G minor Ballade certainly has grandeur – nothing is over-stated and at meno mosso the speed change is subtle, but the presto coda is no more than allegro agitato. Again the word grandeur could be applied to the A minor Ballade. Here there is real power, a beautiful lilt to the rhythm from bar 48 onwards and there is an underlying sense of sadness behind every bar. And the same can be said of the Third, where the approach seems very introspective and controlled. The finest performance here is that of the enigmatic F minor Ballade, which has real humour and delicacy. However the flow and seeming spontaneity of the earlier Preludes or Berceuse isn’t quite recaptured; these works sound more consciously and conspicuously ‘interpreted’. Yet all of the shorter pieces are superbly realised. One has only to listen to the first Nocturne of Opus 15 to realise that a magician is at work. Chopin-playing really doesn’t come any more beautiful than this and the Mazurkas are rhythmically and expressively delightful.

Regarding the complete Etudes (recorded in 2001, and this set also includes two earlier examples of Perahia essaying this music), if stuck on a desert island then it would be this version I would need. Ashkenazy and Pollini are magnificent, but Perahia surpasses them by making each of these pieces into a miniature tone poem. There is breathtaking virtuosity, and time-and-again one listens to the music afresh as Perahia weaves expressive webs of sound. No better example is to be found than in the concluding three Studies of Opus 25, which form a massive peroration to this set of masterworks. And here, more than in the Ballades, we see the younger Perahia writ large: the command of rubato, dynamics, tempo-change, tonal shading and, when needed, massive weight and attack, is absolute.

So an essential purchase if you do not have, or are not acquainted with Perahia’s Chopin. Hopefully Sony with now issue the complete Preludes.

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