Murray Perahia’s Magnificent Account of the ‘Emperor’

10/04/2017

Beethoven: Murray Perahia (piano & conductor),Tomo Keller (violin & conductor), Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Barbican Hall, London 7.4.2017. (MMB)

Beethoven – Romance No.2 in F major, Op.50; Symphony No.1 in C major, Op.21; Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major, Op.73 “Emperor”

What does one say about Beethoven or Murray Perahia that hasn’t already been said? This question occupied my mind as I was travelling to the Barbican yesterday evening to review this concert. The truth is it doesn’t matter; I loved every bit of the music and the performance.

This was part of a series of concerts, Perahia Plays Beethoven at the Barbican.   Who could object to an all-Beethoven affair? Some people do. I recently heard a musicologist and a music critic snubbing Beethoven and Mozart as being included because they sell and that is all the concert halls are interested in. It may well be true to a certain extent but why do they sell? Why do such composers who died more than 200 years ago still have such a powerful resonance with modern audiences? I think the answer is simple: Their music is timeless and very human, full of all the emotions that we all experience at some point in our lives and with which we can’t but identify – who has never felt love or hate, happiness, sadness, loss, joy, frustration or passion? Their music is full of what it is being human and that to me is why they sell.

But let’s return to the concert itself. It started with a delightful little gem – the Romance No.2 in F Major, Op.50 for violin and orchestra. It was beautifully performed by Tomo Keller, a distinguished, much-in-demand violinist who was appointed director/leader of the ASMF in December 2015. At the very beginning I thought him slightly patchy – whether because he was conducting and playing, which he must have actually done many times, or wasn’t fully concentrating due to nerves I don’t know – but it soon passed. After the first three or four bars he completely merged with his splendid Guadagnini from 1778 (on loan from the Swedish Järnåker Foundation) and the sound he extracted was touching, lyrical and suitably romantic, making the start a fuzzy, distant memory.

The Romance was followed by the First Symphony, so often ignored or simply forgotten under the large shadow cast by its more famous companions like the Third, the Fifth and especially the Ninth. Yet it is an innovative work that marked Beethoven’s arrival as a masterful composer of symphonies. Among many other aspects, the First famously begins with the “wrong” chord according to the classical form of the symphony, meaning this chord is a dominant seventh of the dominant key of F major rather than the expected tonic chord of C major. Famous British musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey called this symphony “a comedy of manners” and I can see his point. With this piece the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields had the opportunity to really demonstrate their class and show off their ensemble’s virtuosity. What a performance. It was electrifying, passionate, moving and delicate all in one. The first movement, Adagio molto – Allegro con brio, was so vibrant and powerful it got under one’s skin and made us feel like jumping up and performing some spectacular air conducting moves. The second and third movements were executed with the lyricism and the humour they respectively require and the fourth and final was the proverbial icing on the cake. Tomo Keller directed from his leader’s chair while playing the violin. It was magnificent and the audience roared in appreciation, wandering off into the interval with happy smiles on their faces.

The second part of the concert was the eagerly anticipated performance of thre ‘Emperor’ Concerto. It is interesting to point out that it’s not known as Emperor in Beethoven’s native country of Germany. There it is simply Piano Concerto No.5 but, as also mentioned in the programme notes, the nickname of ‘Emperor’ is popular in English-speaking countries apparently because English piano maker Johann Baptist Cramer described it as the “emperor among concertos”. Make of it what you will but it’s nevertheless a nice anecdote.

Perahia is beginning to look like a slightly frail old man; his hair all white. After all he turns 70 this April, however this impression is only present until he sits at the piano. There all the fragility disappears as if by magic and one almost has the illusion of being in the presence of the young Perahia who won the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1972. Murray Perahia is one of those rare and extraordinary musicians that make everything they do look easy. He has the ability to take one away with him on a flight of the imagination, sustained only by the power of the music and the way he delivers it.

The ‘Emperor’ is truly an emperor among concertos; the music is as magnificent and beautiful as it is difficult but for Perahia it appeared as easy and natural as a few scales to warm up his fingers. One could tell he felt the music deeply, it was there inside him, in every inch of his skin and this he transmits to the audience. His body, his arms, his hands become an extension of Beethoven’s music gently or vigorously touching the piano keys to give us the sound. It was mesmerising and he was not only playing but also conducting the ASMF that supported him throughout with gusto, visibly enjoying themselves. Perahia’s performance was exquisite, refined and elegant. A truly exceptional, extraordinary execution. I was on the edge of my seat and I daresay so were most people, experiencing possibly one of the most memorable, remarkable performances of this concerto they’d ever witnessed. So no wonder when it ended, as if rehearsed to perfection, the audience jumped as one and gave Perahia a long and well deserved standing ovation.

Perahia is a remarkable pianist and a true star – humble, modest, pleasant, with no hint of conceit or arrogance. He seemed surprised at the public’s roaring applause and shouts of bravo and almost embarrassed at the recognition of the ASMF musicians. They applauded his performance for a long time before standing up to receive the public’s acknowledgment for their own brilliant execution. It is a testament to Perahia’s skill and unassuming personality that there were many famous faces in the audience attending the concert, not least Maggie Smith, herself a national treasure of British theatre.

It was a marvellous evening of music. People left the hall with a positive feeling of lightness and a smile on their faces. Life can be beautiful after all and I felt privileged to have to write the review. If only they were always this pleasurable!

Margarida Mota-Bull

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