Murray Perahia at Barbican Hall

Partita in E minor, BWV830
Piano Sonata No.30 in E, Op.109
Ballade in A flat, Op.47
Etudes, Op.25 – Nos.5, 1 & 4
Mazurkas – Op 59/2, Op.50/3 & Op.59/3
Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op 27/1
Scherzo in E, Op.54

Murray Perahia (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 18 February, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Murray Perahia. ©Sony Music EntertainmentMurray Perahia usually looks shy and diffident when he walks onto the stage. He has small hands and does not produce a huge sound and he can be technically fallible – and yet his intellectual and emotional command is absolute. In any age – let alone one where many pianists sound like soulless automatons – Perahia would be counted as a keyboard giant and this stunning recital showed him at his finest.

Bach is one of Perahia’s specialities and in the opening ‘Toccata’ he produced a Schumann-like sound without ever sacrificing line and control. Nor was he afraid in the ‘Allemande’ to introduce a big rallentando before the movement’s climax. In the ‘Courante’ the rubato was Classical, with the left-hand maintaining the rhythm and the right sounding improvisatory. Ornamentation was kept to a minimum, thankfully, and every bar was imbued with a quiet sense of logic and purpose. The closing ‘Gigue’ had a superb sense of conversation between the hands and every line and rhythm was clear, without the tone ever becoming hard or forced.

Perahia is working on a new Edition of Beethoven’s sonatas, yet a true sense of power and passion has been missing in his performances. Opus 109 is one of the supreme masterpieces. The opening movement consists of eight bars of Vivace in two-four time that reappears twice in extended form with two contrasted Adagio sections. Perahia’s approach here and throughout the work brought to mind the quasi una fantasia subtitle that Beethoven used for two Opus 27 sonatas, the second being the so-called ‘Moonlight’. There were numerous small tempo and dynamic variations and he altered his tone to emphasise the change of key in the second Adagio section. In the Prestissimo second movement there was real power and the left-hand part was stark and aggressive.

Perahia certainly took the marking of the slow movement as marked; this was Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo. The tone was translucent and ethereal and unearthed true spirituality. Each of the Variations was beautifully played. On occasion he made passages sound syncopated when they are not, the Andante section became a reverie and the final pages had immense power and conviction. Yes Perahia took liberties, but with an underlying sense of purpose. This was by some distance the best Beethoven playing I have heard from Perahia and one wonders what Alfred Brendel, who was in the audience, thought of it.

After the interval we had a masterclass in the art of playing Chopin. The opening of the Ballade was limpid and clear with little use of pedals. Once again there was a sense of fantasy and reinvention behind ever note and the virtuoso passages grew and receded naturally. This was virtuosity as a means to an end rather than an end itself. Perahia’s recording of the complete Etudes is the best around and in the two Opus 25 studies the music sounded at least 50 years ahead of its time. The E minor was angular and rhythmically unsettling, the A flat sounded like an aria, and the very fast tempo in the C sharp minor quite rightly brought the house down.

In the three late Mazurkas the range of tonal shading was exceptional. You could be forgiven in the C sharp minor for thinking you were listening to Debussy, the two brief polonaise-like sections were seamlessly integrated into the line and texture and in the F sharp minor the rhythmic finesse brought a smile to the face. There was no indulgence in the Nocturne, just a lesson in how to make a piano sound like crushed velvet, the central section crept in and the way in which the left-hand shifted effortlessly from violence at the climax to quiet radiance was spellbinding.

The master-work that is the Scherzo in E is about as far from a ‘joke’ as you can get, but in the opening section I was reminded of Harlequin. At a fast tempo the music danced and the right-hand filigrees sounded – once again – improvisatory. The delineation of parts in the final page was Bach-like and the sense of reinvention totally compelling. This was Chopin playing that will live in the memory and it was a privilege to hear it.

There were two encores. The first a bouncy, witty account of Brahms’s Intermezzo in B flat (Opus 119/3) and a well-nigh-perfect reading of Chopin’s B flat minor Nocturne, Opus 9/1 in which Perahia made minimal use of the sustaining pedal, but still seemed able to make the left-hand sound softer and more consoling than the more crystalline right. This was pure poetry.

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