Murray Perahia, piano, Works by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin, Chan Centre, February 23, 2014


Sony Classical’s release of a mammoth 73CD/ DVD box celebrating pianist Murray Perahia, entitled ‘The First Forty Years’, constitutes a true celebration of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, pianist of our times.  Indeed, I can remember everyone’s excitement in waiting for each of these individual discs to be released, many originally on vinyl.  What is remarkable in sorting through the contents of this box is how each disc is touched by distinction; there is not one which is routine or less than illuminating. The pianist’s ability to dig deeply into the unique spirit of the composer being played, and to articulate their music with a beauty and a perfect balance of intellect and sensitivity, is always present, whether one considers the very early Schumann, Chopin and Mozart discs from around 1970 or the later Brahms and Bach interpretations that emerged after 2000. But we must remember that not all of this forty years was smooth sailing for Murray Perahia.  The pianist suffered a major hand injury in the mid-1990s, having to take a number of years off from playing.  It was his rehabilitation from this that almost certainly led to his interest in Bach, since he could only practice on the harpsichord to begin with.

We have certainly been accustomed to wonderfully balanced and insightful concerts from this revered pianist in recent years; the freshness of the Bach, Beethoven and Schubert he gave us last time still lingers in the memory.  But the uninhibited white heat and passion that Murray Perahia brought to the current concert was both surprising and remarkable.  After all, as pianists mature, they are supposed to get more deliberate and thoughtful, not manifest all the energy and fire of a stallion.  (Actually, when this pianist was young, his performances were in fact very sensitive and subtle, and perhaps understated.)  But so it was. After a beautifully turned Bach French Suite, finding a searching quality throughout but always so astute on rhythm and dynamics, we moved to Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata. 

This famous sonata can of course be exciting even in lesser hands, but here we got a performance that can only be described as transcendent and pathbreaking, and this was communicated instantly to the audience.  The growling opening bottom notes of the first movement set the suspense, having an almost macabre feel, tension slowly building to the most powerful climax.  There were Lisztian and Schubertian spirits flowing from the music in all directions; one climatic wave giving rise to further powerful punctuations, and on and on.   Even the second movement was given a more angular treatment than usual, only fitfully achieving a tranquil peace before the storm of the final Allegro took over. And here the momentum just kept on building, with one volcanic surge after another, pressing on and on with tremendous weight to its cataclysmic ending. 

So this is what ‘Appassionata’ is supposed to mean!  In this performance, the sonata is not just an expressive extension of middle-period Beethoven; it is truly forward-looking romantic drama.  It is not just my imagination that some of the dramatic inflections and phrasing did suggest Liszt’s great B minor Sonata and both Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy and A major Sonata seemed to make fleeting appearances.  But, what an experience overall!  When the pianist came to take a bow after this performance, it seemed that he was almost bewildered by the audience’s overwhelming response, so lost was he in his previous concentration.

This intensity carried over to the rest of the program.  I cannot think of a better performance of Schumann’s early Papillons, so youthfully fresh, tender and joyous at points, but one was always aware of the elemental strength in the pianist’s firm hands.  As well, for the Chopin Scherzo, Op. 31, having extraordinary command over the line and dramatic weight of the work, taking me to somewhat the same place as Krystian Zimmerman’s overwhelming Ballades did a number of seasons ago.  Even in the lyrical Schubert Impromptu encore, indeed beautifully paced, one knew that the fury of a lion was not far away.

A truly unique concert, seeing one of the greatest living pianists in full flight!


© Geoffrey Newman 2014