Academy of St Martin in the Fields Concert – 15th May

Overture to Alcina
Concerto in D (BWV 1054)
Piano Concerto No.25 in C (K503)
Symphony No.38 in D ’Prague’ (K504)

Academy of St Martin in the Fields conducted by Murray Perahia (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 15 May, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Is there a new-model Murray Perahia? A Perahia who, after recovering from a career-threatening injury, plays in a more masculine, muscular way, more openly heroic, but with fewer moments of reflective poetry? On the evidence of this concert, very much so – Perahia emphasises structure over detail and pushes the music on rather than lingering over individual moments of beauty. His recent Schumann has become more Florestan than Eusebius; his Bach has an equality of intellectual clarity and pianistic colour. [There’s also the new RFH Yamaha to consider; my comments on this are included in my coverage of the RFH’s 50th–birthday concert in which Perahia played Schumann’s concerto – Music Editor.]

Other than as a means to settle the audience and warm the instruments, there seemed little to commend the conductor-less performance of Handel’s Alcina overture. It was brisk, neat and stylish, but shown-up by the initial tutti of the Mozart concerto, which had more edge and bite. Throughout both concertos, the dialogue between soloist and orchestra was exemplary – the players minutely sensitive to nuances of dynamics and phrasing.

Perahia is the doyen of Mozart concerto-playing, I confess to disappointment that his interpretation of K503 did not contain more illumination. It was authoritative, imperious even, but seldom allowed dreaming or the expressing of wonder. Although Perahia drew-out beautifully balanced playing and sprung-rhythms from the orchestra – which prevented the first movement ever seeming portentous – he seemed reluctant to introduce vulnerability to the solo part, preferring to let orchestral instruments bear the greater part of emotional commitment. At times his octave playing was almost perfunctory; this was a performance to admire, not love.

This was particularly evinced in the slow movement, where Perahia was emotionally restrained in the operatic-like solo part. The contrast between the four-square theme and the more playful episodes was well contrasted in the finale, though even here the melting middle episode was underplayed in what has been termed Mozart’s ’Emperor’ concerto; certainly there was something Beethovenian in Perahia’s playing, not least his own, chromatic, dark first-movement cadenza.

Perahia’s freshness and attack in Bach (also to be heard in his clutch of recent Bach recordings) very much suggested that this is where his heart currently is. The D major concerto is more familiar as the E major violin concerto – Perahia’s strength of character and iron-control of the piano’s figurations gave no clue that this was not original writing. Equally, the impeccable lucidity of the passagework perfectly bonded together the orchestral parts. Again, Perahia was always moving the music on, disdaining any tendency to dwell on detail – I cannot imagine the excitement and élan of the finale bettered.

The discipline of Bach, rather than the softness of Mozart, seems better suited to Perahia’s present balance between drama and lyricism, the swift tempos characteristic of modern Baroque fashion more appropriate for his current repudiation of self-indulgence than the agogic reflection that previously hallmarked his Mozart.

Perahia’s lyricism seems to have been diverted into his new career as a conductor. There was more pliancy in his ’Prague’ – immediately evident from the restrained poise of the first movement exposition, Perahia drawing sweetness, a phrasal perfection and an expressive dialogue between strings and wind that belied his newness as a conductor. It is not uncommon for pianists who become conductors to be initially superior with detail and colour than holding together abstract structures. This was occasionally so here – notably at the end of the first movement’s development when the forward flow was lost, but the momentum recovered in the recapitulation.

Perahia’s account of the slow movement was characterised by finely-drawn melodic lines, counterpoised by well-articulated rhythms; the finale returned to a robust assertiveness, a less ’chamber’ approach and an aggressive edge not encountered in the first movement. A performance of insight and inspiration but not consistently magical. Perahia is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest musicians; his transition to further musical identity is still in process.

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