32 Variations in C minor
Sonata in E minor, Op.90
Sonata in A, Op.101
Sonata in A, D959
Murray Perahia (piano)
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: 20 June, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Those without ego are often the best interpreters of Schubert. The younger Perahia had a reputation for being poetic, almost feminine in his playing; recently he has become more assertive and muscular. In comparison with his recording of sixteen years ago, Perahia’s D959 has become less openly reflective, less the spiritual exploration of a young, dying composer; it is now grander, more substantial.
The more live performances I hear of Schubert’s final trilogy of sonatas, the more I realise how difficult they are to bring off. There are no props of technical fireworks or intellectual complexity, yet they require immense vision, intensity and innigkeit. I found Perahia’s view disappointing and two-dimensional, especially in comparison with Richard Goode’s recent Barbican interpretation, which far more vividly mixed lyricism, bewilderment, resignation, suffering and celebration.
The long slow movement is the work’s emotional heart, a violent juxtaposition of serene melodic lines and an anguished, tortured central section – an outburst against mortality, a fear of death. In smoothing out the contrasts, in building it into an architectonic, Enlightenment structure, Perahia ignored the movement’s uniqueness and misconstrued its depth. If the greatest virtue of Perahia’s recent recording of Bach’s ‘Goldbergs’ is its Apollonian, expository authority, the same approach fell far short in Schubert. There were wonderful moments – the repose at the end of the first two movements for example – yet overall this was not a striking rendition, the ‘Scherzo’ being light if mannered, and the ‘Finale’ and opening movement more routine than varied. Perahia depended more on formal beauty than raw passion; the increasing number of fluffs and smudges detracted from the listener’s concentration.
Perahia was far more successful with Beethoven. His recent interest in Bach cared for Beethoven’s polyphonic textures, with the more heroic vein of his playing well suited to the struggle of the composer. Perahia’s Beethoven is, as expected, now unsentimental, very structured, brusque even – as at the beginning of Op.101. The second movement, taken at a fast clip, repudiated both display and bombast. Perahia remains capable of moments of extreme aesthetic refinement – as at the ‘dolce’ section of that movement, or in the magical balance of crotchets in the countersubject of the ‘Finale’, the mood-spinning of the slow movement and the honeyed roundness that opened the ‘Finale’ of Op.90.
It is as if the ‘old’ Perahia poetry has retreated from guiding principle to merge into detail, as if there is a conscious preference for far-sight over the precision and wonder that the microscope reveals. Lyricism has become stylistic trait, not attitude or credo. Perahia’s Beethoven now has something of Kempff’s contempt for self-indulgence – an advocate of lucidity, of understanding over mystery. This approach leaves Perahia exposed in technical terms – the wrong notes inevitable in live performances were far more noticeable than from a less disciplined player.
Of the three Beethoven pieces, Op.101 came off best, the smoothing of its contours, and the taming of the fierce fugal ‘Finale’ making it comprehensible, accessible even, without losing its sense of greatness. The Variations, efficient and with more than a gesture to Baroque models, was clear in outline but unremarkable, with Op.90 given seriousness, even grandeur, that belied its brevity and placed it firmly among Beethoven’s late works.
Murray Perahia is in a period of re-invention. In some instances, Bach and Chopin, live performances and recordings propose the new identity has come to fruition. In other cases, as with this recital – if not Chopin’s A minor Etude (Op.25/11) played as an encore – the great work still seems in progress.