Magnetic, Deeply Considered Musicianship from Murray Perahia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven: Murray Perahia (piano). Barbican Hall, London, 20.6.2016. (MB)

Haydn – Variations in F minor, Hob.XXII:6

Mozart – Piano Sonata no.8 in A minor, KV 310/300d

Brahms – Four Piano Pieces, op.119

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.29 in B-flat major, op.106, ‘Hammerklavier’)

There could be no doubting the seriousness of the programme, nor the seriousness of Murray Perahia’s purpose, for this Barbican recital. With respect to the first half – Haydn, Mozart, and Brahms – I confess to wondering whether two out of the three pieces might have been more digestible; it is not as if any of us would have thought Perahia was otherwise veering down the Lang Lang circus-act route. In the face of such pianism and musicianship, though, it would be churlish to complain about having been treated to a little more. There was only one movement concerning which I entertained serious reservations; I shall come to that in due course.

The opening bars of Haydn’s extraordinary F minor/major Variations – Alfred Brendel opened his final London recital with this very work – brought us that renowned limpid tone, dissolving to reveal a range of colours none but the greatest pianist could conjure forth. The first theme could be surprisingly forceful too, never inappropriately so; this is music that peers into the nineteenth century, and so it sounded. By contrast, the F major second theme seemed to look back (rather as Beethoven would in much of his early music), not unlike a trio. It was Mozart who came to mind in the pathos of the first variation. Chromaticism always helps in that respect, but if there were Mozartian tendencies, they sounded as the culmination of Haydn’s own career of writing for the piano; they never sounded imposed upon the music, nor did anything else in this recital. The strength of purpose in the second variation again hinted at Beethoven, without forsaking the composer at hand. Turning back to the major, a more carefree note was struck, but it was more a creation of carefreeness than anything more arbitrary; Perahia had thought about every note, so it seemed, without that tending towards pedantry. The return of the F minor theme sounded noble indeed, although I was a little unsure about the abruptness of the transition to the Coda and some ornamentation thereafter.

Mozart’s A minor Sonata followed, its first movement exposition forthright yet variegated; I should not have minded it yielding a little more, its driven quality perhaps pushing it, ironically, closer to Haydn than one might generally prefer. The repeat, however, was more yielding, more variegated, so that in retrospect, Perahia’s design seemed quite right. A terse development led to a still more intense recapitulation, the turn to the tonic minor evincing unforced tragic eloquence. The beauty of the pianist’s passagework throughout simply had to be heard to be believed. I have heard more charming accounts of the slow movement, but Perahia’s awe-inspiring sense of line, deepened surely by his Schenkerian studies, offered its own rewards. This was not a Mozart of Meissen china; nor should it have been. The complexity of the most vehement music in particular highlighted its closeness to Schoenberg, even if that were not Perahia’s intention. (I recall him once frankly admitting in an interview that he did not understand twelve-note music. I suspect he could play it very well anyway, if he wished.) The finale is always very difficult to bring off; here, one might have thought it the easiest thing in the world to have done so. Technical control is, of course, crucial, but also a willingness and ability to let meaning arise through the offices of the music rather than to impose an external narrative upon it. Again, Perahia’s command of line provided the finest of frames.

Brahms’s op.119 Pieces were perhaps darker still. The first’s opening phrase signalled that intervallic and colouristic concerns were as one. (I could not help but think of Webern.) Rhythm is equally important, especially at so strikingly slow a tempo as this – and in that respect too, Perahia’s understanding was unerring. The second piece sounded initially as a greater contrast than it was ultimately revealed to be. There were shades of agitation from the Brahms of old, but its ‘lateness’ was equally apparent. Exquisite craftsmanship and darkness of emotion were inseparable. Much the same might be said of the third Intermezzo; yet, if a dark dance, it nevertheless danced. The final Rhapsody had a terrible sense of fury barely repressed by iron control (compositional and performative). Organisation, vertical and horizontal, were almost frighteningly clear, making Schoenberg seem almost lackadaisical by comparison (well, perhaps not quite). There were a couple of brief, not very noticeable slips; in context, they came almost as a relief.

The second half was devoted to the Hammerklavier Sonata. (We are stuck with the silly nickname, I think, so there is no point in moaning about it too much.) Its opening movement was the one with which I had difficulties. It was fleet, lighter on its toes than one generally hears. There was great clarity in the fugal writing too. It all sounded a little skated over, though, at least to me; formal dynamism did not imprint itself as it would under, say, Pollini. Perhaps such a comparison is, however, more odious even than usual. Well-sprung rhythms in the Scherzo suggested it almost as a forerunner of the late Bagatelles. Until, that is, it went on another, more complex path, although even then… Perahia’s view intrigued and, in its way, convinced. A gravely beautiful slow movement could have had no one straining to find depth. There was, moreover, a Romantic grandeur to the lyricism flowering above: always founded upon harmony, though. That command of line was once again unerringly communicated: our thread through the labyrinth. If this were not so radical a way with the work as Pollini’s, then the music’s radicalism could hardly fail to shine through in any case. The strangeness of the opening bars to the finale registered without showmanship. As Beethoven’s material announced itself – and one felt that illusion, as opposed to Perahia announcing it – building blocks were assembled, but blocks that might ever be in danger of cracking under the strain. They did not, and I have heard performances in which they came closer, performances of considerably greater violence; the balance and/or dialectic can be conveyed in different ways and there is no reason to be dogmatic. That the way was always relatively clear did not, however, mean that Beethoven’s obstinacy was short-changed. Sometimes I wondered how Perahia could possibly be playing all those notes at once. I also wished, however vainly, to hear what he might make of the deconstruction of this monstrous work in Boulez’s Second Sonata.

Mark Berry


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