Murray Perahia, piano: Works by Bach, Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven, Chan Centre, April 23, 2017.

One often takes the greatest living pianists as fixed commodities, having the facility to deliver concert after concert for decades with the same sterling artistry. Murray Perahia has been one of the most consistent of these icons, perennially creating wonder with his mix of keyboard control, tonal sophistication and musical insight. But over the last decade, a deeper fire seems to have surfaced in him, producing interpretations which are more uncompromising and decisive on the one hand and more searching and daring on the other. I noticed this very much at this recital and his previous one of three years ago when he played Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ (review). Perhaps some things have changed for the pianist more recently: there was his recovery from his hand injury under a decade ago, now there is a new recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon after more than four decades with Sony. This sold-out recital traversed Perahia’s bread-and-butter repertoire with great distinction: a Bach that was beautifully etched, a Schubert that had the true spirit of discovery, and one of the most intellectually-penetrating interpretations of Beethoven’s last sonatas I have heard.

Even though the pianist took up Bach only late in his career (triggered by his first hand injury of the 1990s), no one could doubt that his earliest recordings of the Keyboard Concertos and the Goldberg Variations provided the greatest illumination. And his interest has continued and deepened: his debut recording for Deutsche Grammophon last October was Bach’s French Suites, and we heard No. 6 on this occasion. Perahia’s Bach is always beautifully thought-out and proportioned, finding architecture and rhythmic cogency alongside a myriad of suspending lyrical phrase shapes. Perhaps even more important, it has a rejuvenating spirit to coax the listener on. All this was fully present from the opening Allemande to the closing Gigue, the latter being a real tour-de-force in its sense of inexorable motion. It was in fact the feeling of natural motion harnessed to ultra-sensitive dynamics that imbued all eight dances, proceeding with a strikingly fleet, will-o-wisp Courante and a similarly-striking control of tensions in a Sarabande of inward depth. The later dances exhibited a lovely sense of rhythmic control and one always noted how the pianist’s searching right hand explorations found new corners of expression.  All of this seemed so fresh and spontaneous, not least because Perahia could suddenly trigger great flashes of virtuosity to set beside his thoughtfulness.     

There could be few more endearing recordings than the Schubert Impromptus the pianist originally set down for Sony – wonderfully sensitive and complete accounts of these works.  In this traversal of the four Op. 142 pieces, all of Perahia’s customary architectural strength and poetry were present but there was also a more dramatic and searching posture that made the works more unsettled, saying something deeper. The F minor Impromptu started from greater pungency and weight, and carried on with very strong imagery and narrative, truly bringing out the ‘wanderer’ in Schubert.  The A-flat started from almost declamatory chords and managed to infuse the piece with a type of impetuosity. There was an uncommon freedom of spirit in No. 3, fostering great delight and playfulness to set against the storminess later. It was the interpretation of the final F minor Impromptu that was possibly the most eye-opening – enigmatic in feeling, phrases sometimes fragmented, other times evoking a euphoric state, with everything seemingly driven by restless, obsessive forces. Schumann and Liszt would have liked this. 

After a tenderly-etched Mozart Rondo in A minor, the Beethoven 32nd Sonata set the seal on this concert.. As Beethoven’s last sonatas have now gained sufficient ascendency that every pianist, young and old, wants to attempt them, there is an increasing pressure for each artist to lay bare the metaphysical message in these works, reflective of the great composer’s final state.  Are these the unparalleled statements of a deaf composer going slightly crazy?  Are they testaments to the composer’s vision of a world beyond?  And so on. What was so refreshing about Perahia’s performance is that he was not seduced by any of this, only the profound intellectual cohesion of the score. 

The first movement had ample thrust and defiance – and, at times, almost a sense of fury – but what impressed was how coherently it moved from beginning to end, so finely balancing a contemplative undercurrent with its terse physical projection.  Nonetheless, the concluding movement was the revelation, showing the greatness of the work to flow from Beethoven’s unprecedented ingenuity in building a movement out of harmonic synergy and tonal progression alone. The first thing that Perahia did was to anchor the chordal structure in stone; there was remarkable power and fire in his chords and they effectively split the movement into a sequence of ‘blocks’.  At the same time, the pianist  differentiated between those tonal or chordal ‘centers’ which are stable and those which are not, where the latter must eventually seek resolve in the former. Aided by very refined dynamic control, it was the subtle movement towards and away from these tonal centers, and the sequential movement of the ‘blocks’, that gave the movement a compelling logic and flow, and kept the listener completely suspended.  Even the ‘jazzy’ outbreaks in the middle seemed to be just another vista in this ingenious journey. Though many have played up the composer’s wildness and fragmentation of utterance here, it was the movement’s sense of gradual unfolding, and its ability to move forward with inexorably-linked shades of feeling and colour, that underpinned this experience. So do we now think of Beethoven as anticipating Debussy or Wolfgang Rihm?

There is no doubt that Perahia’s penetration of Beethoven’s supreme work was remarkable.  The 32nd sonata appeared as a far more pathbreaking contribution to the evolution of musical construction than any attempt to paint the work with a specific metaphysical or romantic veneer might achieve. This performance was about penetrating the hidden secrets of the score, not telling a story about the composer’s last days.


© Geoffrey Newman 2017