Murray Perahia – 18 June

Partita in E minor, BWV830
Sonata in E, Op.109
Sonata in C minor, D958

Murray Perahia (piano)

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 18 June, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Murray Perahia began with a supremely confident and commanding performance of Bach’s E minor Partita – never for a moment was there the thought that this music was being played on the ’wrong’ instrument. Bach’s music sounded as if it had been conceived for a Steinway grand piano rather than a harpsichord. Perahia has a rare gift for articulating the notes in such a way as to use the piano’s sonority to enhance the impact of the music rather than drawing attention to the player’s virtuosity.

In the opening movement, the sonorous chordal writing was weighty and this alternated with florid, toccata music that was played with crystalline clarity. Here and elsewhere, fugal voices were clearly heard, without contrapuntal detail becoming masked. In the inner movements, tempi were swift, although they didn’t feel hurried, and there was some quite elaborate ornamentation. Throughout, one could admire Bach’s ingenious keyboard and part-writing; indeed one of the joys of this performance was being able to hear the intricacies of what the composer had written. This does not mean that we experienced an ’academic’ performance. On the contrary, Perahia delivered Bach’s music affectionately and revelled in the challenges it poses to the player.

The clarity and poise of Perahia’s playing was also heard to good effect in Beethoven’s late E major Sonata. The almost mercurial character of the first movement – which alternates fast and slow speeds – was well captured by Perahia. The passages where the extremes of the piano’s compass are exploited registered in all their strangeness and, once again, Perahia’s consummate skills were placed at the service of the composer. The listener was drawn into the remarkable soundworld, which is peculiar to Beethoven’s final sonatas. The flighty prestissimo – ’scherzo’ seems too lightweight a description – suggested a frenzy of agitation and disturbance. The phenomenal technical difficulties of this movement were not even hinted at.

The heart of this sonata is the theme and variations that form the finale. The hymn-like theme had a sorrowful nobility about it, and Perahia integrated the six variations in such a way that the movement had organic unity; the concluding variation with double trills was satisfying in its sense of culmination. The re-statement of the theme in the coda was almost unbearably poignant. Like so much late Beethoven, there is the ineffable air of regret and nostalgia at what might have been. One almost did not want to hear any more music after this heartfelt performance which had made this comparatively short sonata convey so much feeling.

However, after the interval, Murray Perahia returned to give a performance of Schubert’s C minor sonata, which was every bit as masterly and convincing. It seems almost incredible that the young Schubert (barely 30 at the time) should be able to express a lifetime of experience in the way he does in his last works, including this sonata composed barely two months before his untimely death.

Schubert accepted the challenge of writing in the traditional four-movement sonata form, each movement testimony to his melodic invention and, especially in these late pieces, his mastery of harmony. There are some truly audacious harmonic moments in this sonata which Perahia gave full due, without drawing excessive attention to them. The breadth of the first movement anticipates Brahms in its expansiveness; Perahia emphasised the tautness of the musical argument, with the melodic line clearly projected and no suggestion of muddiness in the accompaniment. The hushed intensity of the ’Adagio’ was rapt and expressive and the various episodes once again finely integrated into the whole. The pithy Minuet and Trio was more than a mere interlude – its contained, somewhat severe character forming an apt prefiguring of the final ’Allegro’ whose steely tarantella rhythm had an almost obsessive quality.

There was some unpleasantness of tone in the piano’s upper register particularly noticeable in this movement – an unfortunate deficiency of the instrument used on this occasion. But this setback and one or two momentary – and genuinely surprising – slips from Perahia did not in any way detract from the power of this reading of one of Schubert’s most potent works.

Perahia played two encores, which were not terribly convincing. Brahms’s B minor Rhapsody was rather splashily delivered and Chopin’s C sharp minor Etude (from Op.10) was dashed off somewhat perfunctorily. Actually, after the Schubert, there was no necessity for anything else.

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