Murray Perahia at Barbican Hall – Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert & Chopin

Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op.27/2 (Quasi una fantasia – Moonlight)
Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op.26
Piano Sonata in A, D664
Polonaise in C sharp minor, Op.26/1; 24 Preludes, Op.28 – No.8 in F sharp minor; Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op.63/3; Scherzo in B minor, Op.20

Murray Perahia (piano)

Reviewed by: Tully Potter

Reviewed: 7 June, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Murray Perahia is the master of mezzo-forte. I think I could count on the fingers of two hands the number of times I have heard him play really softly over the past 30 years or so. And I did not add much to that score on this occasion.

Murray Perahia. ©Sony Music EntertainmentMusicians will tell you that the hardest thing to do is to play the first note. Perahia made several little feints at the keyboard before he finally launched into the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata but once he was going the Adagio sostenuto unrolled naturally and classically, with excellent tone. The little central Allegretto was also very well played and the tempestuous finale did not miss a beat. It was the sort of Beethoven Solomon used to give us, musical, stylish, perfectly proportioned and just a little dull (I except Solomon’s wonderful performances of Opus 111 from that stricture). Fortissimos were all there, plenty of mezzo-forte, but pianissimos, no. On a literary note, I always thought that Liszt described the Allegretto of the ‘Moonlight’ as a valley of Edelweiss between two mountains. The Barbican programme annotator had “a flower between two abysses”.

Schumann’s Carnival Jest from Vienna is a strange work, virtually a sonata despite having five movements. Perahia held the Allegro together very well, generating considerable power and momentum, but made little of the brief ‘Romanze’, where a more poetic response would have been welcome. The ‘Scherzino’ seemed to pique his interest a little more and, like the work itself, his playing got better as it progressed. In the ‘Intermezzo’ he was fully engaged, with his left-hand creating impressive sounds, and he played up quite a storm in the hypnotically obsessive finale.

After the interval, Schubert’s ‘little’ A major Piano Sonata took the recital on to a different plane. Suddenly Perahia was phrasing and voicing with imagination. I suppose the relatively brisk tempo that he, Solomon and Myra Hess favour for the first movement is the ‘right’ one. I prefer the ‘wrong’ slower one that Sviatoslav Richter adopted, especially in his EMI recording (later it got almost too slow). Travelling at a slightly slower speed might have helped Perahia to get his hands into position without requiring one or two fractionally-too-long pauses between phrases, but generally this movement was lovely. The Andante sang nicely and in the delightful finale Perahia kicked up his heels a little, approaching a pianissimo on four, or perhaps half-a-dozen, notes. This performance alone made my journey worthwhile.

The Chopin group seemed a little perversely chosen: one of the less riveting Polonaises, a Prelude that I would not normally expect to hear on its own, and a Mazurka that often gets overlooked. All were played unsentimentally and skilfully, if without any special sense of personal identification. The First Scherzo was much better, Perahia paying more attention to dynamic levels and injecting a genuine sense of excitement, to bring his official programme to an exhilarating close.

The first encore, Chopin’s F major Nocturne (Opus 15/1), had inner strength and a fine cantabile but not much poetic feeling, although it hung together well. Schubert’s A flat Impromptu (D899/4) immediately confirmed that of the composers on show, Schubert best fitted Perahia’s talents. It was lovely, fluent and sensitively voiced, with the usual proviso that nothing was really soft. Finally Brahms’s C major Intermezzo (Opus 119/3) was an absolute delight with more delicacy than anything that had gone before. Fine filigree! Light and shade! Real pianissimos! And in Brahms! What an unpredictable world we live in…

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