Perahia and St Martin – No.3 (31 March)

Overture in C, D591 (In the Italian Style)
Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.25
Brandenburg Concerto No.5 in D, BWV1050
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60

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

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 31 March, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This concert demonstrated the impeccable and refined musicianship of Murray Perahia as pianist, and the respect the Academy of St Martin the Fields quite evidently has for him. If the results of Perahia’s presence on the podium (actually there wasn’t one) were less successful, this did not render the orchestra’s response as anything less than totally wholehearted. Indeed the rapport between pianist/conductor and players throughout was a joy to observe.

A comparative rarity in the concert hall, Schubert’s overture ’In the Italian Style’ takes as its model the opera overtures of Rossini, the success of which Schubert had experienced first-hand during the visit to Vienna by an Italian opera company in 1816. The young composer was fired with enthusiasm for Rossini’s orchestral writing and the assurance of his handling of the orchestra is remarkable for one barely 20 years old. Sadly, the work was not heard until after Schubert’s death. In the slow introduction, the smooth, expressive phrasing was noteworthy, as was Perahia’s attention to the details of the contrasting dynamics. Perahia set a commendably steady tempo for the ensuing ’Allegro’ and one admired the pert contributions of the woodwind – particularly the passages for flute and clarinet in octaves. The faster coda generated a sense of ebullience, but, as a conductor, Perahia seemed rather tense and so the open, sunny vitality of this music was not fully conveyed.

The ASMF, modest in number on this occasion, plays what might be termed ’modern’ instruments; poise and polish were consistently admirable. There was one concession to so-called ’period’ style, in that the timpanist used very hard sticks. But played on modern instruments the effect was incongruous and not in keeping with the warm, blended tone of the rest of the orchestra.

Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, written for the composer to play himself (and what a formidable piano technique he must have had) was given with all the energy and sparkle it demands. I must confess that I had forgotten quite what a ’showy’ piece this is with, frankly, some pretty indifferent musical ideas (witness the rather silly rondo theme in the finale), but Perahia and his orchestra played it for all it was worth and the result was exhilarating in the outer movements and reflective in the central ’Andante’.

Perahia was fully equal to the challenges Mendelssohn throws to the pianist in the first movement, with rapid scale-like passages at extremes of the keyboard dispatched with almost nonchalant ease. He was also forceful when required and gave the music a much-needed sense of toughness. The Academy was attentive in its support and there were exciting exchanges between soloist and orchestra. The Andante was beautifully played, and violas and cellos didn’t allow their opening melody to descend into sentimentality, even if there were a couple of half-hearted portamentos which would have been better omitted or played with greater conviction. The final ’Presto’ was suitably vivacious and the collective virtuosity on display almost enabled one to overlook the shallowness of some of the musical material. One couldn’t help wondering, however, whether Perahia’s gifts could not be more profitably utilised in different virtuoso repertoire – the Liszt concertos, perhaps?

The highlight of the evening was a simply wonderful performance of Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. Kenneth Sillito (violin) and Jaime Martin (flute) joined Perahia. As a trio they were responsive both to the orchestra and to one another. This was true chamber music playing of the most elegant kind. Sillito (the Academy’s Artistic Director and Leader) directed from the violin and set a spanking pace for the opening ’Allegro’ that was marred only by some unnecessarily mannered dynamics and articulation. But any reservations faded as the movement progressed, with details of inner parts and harmonies revealed with crystal clarity. Perahia played with a restraint which was not reticent and his delineation of Bach’s sometimes labyrinthine keyboard writing was superb. In the big cadenza he received the admiration of at least one listener for not fiddling about with the tempo, thus integrating the passage into the movement as a whole, and the increasing virtuosity was placed at the service of the music rather than as a demonstration of the player’s prowess which was indeed considerable.

The second movement, scored for soloists alone, was delivered intimately with plenty of give and take between the players. And it benefited from not being rushed. Enjoyment and contemplation were spoilt only by a vicious outburst of coughing when, ideally, the finale should begin almost immediately. This movement truly danced along, with grace and refinement but without hurrying – a most welcome antidote to some Bach performances, which seem to think that playing his music as rapidly as possible is the best way to present it. It isn’t, as Perahia and his colleagues demonstrated so ably and admirably. Perahia made no apology for playing Bach on the piano, either by his performance or in a programme note. Far better this cultivated rendition and interpretation than a questionably tuned harpsichord and a handful of anaemic strings.

I’m afraid I cannot be so enthusiastic about Perahia’s conducting of Beethoven’s Fourth symphony. As was suggested in the Schubert, Perahia was somewhat tentative and lacking in real communicative focus. The opening should invoke an air of mystery and timelessness – the music almost foreshadows or pre-echoes the start of Mahler’s First Symphony – but Perahia and the Academy were too literal and earthbound. Some imprecision of ensemble did not help either and whilst the ’Allegro vivace’ was launched with panache, it did not emerge naturally from what had preceded it. The basic tempo was also too fast and not always securely maintained. A similar problem affected the other movements, with the second not consistently steady, and details in the third were passed over, although this Scherzo had abundant good humour and rusticity. The Finale too was far more rapid than Beethoven’s ’Allegro ma non troppo’ marking, thus preventing articulation – especially from the winds – from being clear. The music had a breathless quality, which was unquestionably invigorating, and the orchestra was clearly enjoying itself, but Beethoven’s symphonic argument needs more purposeful direction than it received on this occasion.

It would be a pity if Murray Perahia, a consummate artist and sensitive musician, were to extend his work into fields where others of his pianist colleagues have trodden – not always with happy results or unalloyed success.

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