Murray Perahia Returns to London in Superb Form

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Franck, Chopin, Murray Perahia (piano), Barbican Hall, London, 5.6.2015 (RB)


Bach – French Suite No. 6 in E Major BWV817
Haydn – Piano Sonata in A Flat Major Hob XVI:46
Variations in F Minor Hob XVII: 6
Beethoven – Sonata in C Sharp Minor Op 27 No. 2 ‘Moonlight’
Franck – Prélude Choral et Fugue (1884)
Chopin – Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor Op 20


Murray Perahia has been absent for far too long from London concert platforms and it was great to see this extraordinary artist performing once again at the Barbican.  This varied and characteristically generous recital was, as is so often the case with Perahia recitals, a pleasure to listen to from start to finish.

Perahia reminded us of what a distinguished Bach performer he is with the opening work on the programme – Bach’s E Major French Suite.  The opening Allemande had poise and rhythmic bounce and the contrapuntal lines were beautifully balanced. In this and all the subsequent movements Perahia observed the repeats and his embellishments were more elaborate the second time around.  The Sarabande is at the heart of the Suite and this performance had a cultivated nobility with Perahia providing some nuanced changes of sonority and dynamic contrasts.  The articulation was supremely elegant in the Gavotte while the Bourrée had a whirling rhythmic energy.  The opening theme of the final Gigue was nicely pointed and the contrapuntal exchanges had a wonderful clarity and definition – the tempo, dynamics and phrasing all sounded completely natural and unforced, allowing the ebullient high spirits of the piece shine through in an effortless way.

Perahia is arguably the world’s greatest interpreter of Mozart’s piano music but I have not heard him so much in Haydn so I was interested to hear how he would approach the next two works on the programme.  Haydn’s A Flat major Sonata was composed in the late 1760’s when the composer was under the spell of CPE Bach and experimenting with highly emotive forms of expression and an improvisatory style.  In the opening movement the improvisatory flourishes were executed beautifully and Perahia brought out the composer’s sparkling wit and playful exchanges.  The phrasing sounded entirely natural and spontaneous and the music emerged in a highly organised and organic way.  The development section was particularly impressive with Perahia giving us many subtle variations of touch and timbre as the music modulated through minor keys with the music gradually achieved a symphonic breadth and sonority.  The opening of the Adagio second movement had a cool Classical poise but as the movement unfolded it became an enchanting vocal duet between the hands.  I loved the expressive way Perahia brought out the chromaticisms in the music and the highly charged and dramatic use of the dissonances.  The passage-work in the finale was crisp and incisive and the music was perfectly framed and executed.  The tempo was a little on the slow side but it allowed Perahia to expose much of the fine detail while at the same time allowing the bubbling effervescence of the music to shine through.

Haydn’s F Minor Variations came next and this performance really brought home to me why many people regard this work as the greatest set of piano variations written in the 18th Century.  Perahia deployed a slightly hard and dry tone in the minor key sections which underscored the weight and intensity of these passages.  The major key sections had a coy charm and the array of arabesques, roulades and trills was immaculate.  There was a clear sense of purpose and structure throughout and imaginative use of tone colour ensured the music was continually alive and arresting.

The final work in the long first half was Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata.  The first movement is so famous it is difficult to know what to do with it without making it sound boring or clichéd.  Perahia’s tempo was on the fast side and certainly faster than the composer’s marking of Adagio sostenuto.  He also adopted slightly unusual voicing for the left hand – in the opening section the left hand was pronounced but then it vanished away almost to a whisper as the right hand became more prominent.  For me this performance did not quite capture the rapt, still, dreamy atmosphere that one associates with this piece and it did not entirely work but it was a brave attempt to look at this music in a new and invigorating way.  The Allegretto was graceful and balletic and there was some exquisitely shaped phrasing.  It was nicely balanced with the trio where Perahia used artful rubato to characterise the cheerful thematic material.  There was a dry kinetic surge of energy at the beginning of the Presto finale with its upward sweeping arpeggios, staccato quavers in the bass and sforzandi.  I was struck by the way in which Perahia found space to bring out some of the striking contrasts within the music while at the same time maintaining the driving momentum.

The second half opened with Franck’s Prélude Choral et Fugue which seems to be featuring more and more on concert platforms nowadays.  Perahia deployed flexible phrasing and a silky tone in the opening arpeggio figurations which grew into an intricately threaded tapestry.  There were some wonderful bell-like organ sonorities and the haunting melodies and rich chromatic harmonies almost took on a Wagnerian quality.  The transition to the Choral was one of those moments of rare ineffable beauty that needs to be heard to believed.  The Choral itself had weight and depth of sound and Perahia sustained the line marvellously although I would have liked to hear a better incremental build up in dynamics throughout the movement.  In the finale I was struck with the ease and fluency of Perahia’s technique – this was a masterclass in touch, timbre, texture, dynamics and voicing.  I wondered if there might be scope to deploy a wider range of colours at the beginning of the fugue but the return to the opening theme was spellbinding and in the final section there was some muscular playing, intricate layering of textures and the jubilant pealing of bells.

The final work on the programme was the first of Chopin’s four Scherzi.  I have always been impressed with Perahia’s digital dexterity and this performance reminded me of just how awesome he can be in this regard. The finger-work was dazzling in the opening section with Perahia going at a blistering piece while retaining an absolute clarity and beauty of tone.  The central section in the tonic major was given space to breathe and Perahia deployed a burnished tone and conjured warm luminous colours from his Steinway.  The coda was a blistering tour de force which succeeded in bringing the whole of the Barbican Hall audience to their feet.

Three encores followed by Chopin and Schumann – the cultivated musicianship, sensitivity and virtuosity remained intact right to the end of the recital.  Superb stuff!

Robert Beattie



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