tue 29/11/2022

Murray Perahia, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Murray Perahia, Barbican Hall

Murray Perahia, Barbican Hall

Simply, a master pianist in a master recital

Last night Murray Perahia played Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and Chopin, and we heard, quite simply, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and Chopin. Nothing more need be said, if one follows the Cordelia principle to love, and be silent.

Still, as you insist, I will add that it was an ideally private experience between him and me, and I dare say, private between him and every other individual sitting in the Barbican Hall. Perahia, now 63, has always had an inclination towards translucency, for making himself the finest possible veil through which to show you the composers, and yet what schmutter that veil is, what featherlight richness in its handle, what an innumerable threadcount it has, what strength that gossamer holds. This is Perahia’s gift: simplicity, illumination, air in his hands.

Bach’s French Suites are no big deal in virtuoso terms. A child could play the notes of the fifth one, but only a true musician could play with such simplicity, and with the kind of vocal cantabile that easily makes the imaginative leap to the long piano melodies of Chopin more than a century later. Perahia played a big-toned Steinway, with a particularly gritty bass register that came much into play later, but he has a searching, feathery touch that made, for instance, the two parallel lines of the Sarabande (only one note in each hand at any time) into a serene rumination, the speedy Bourrée into something of unexpected aural complexity, and the merriment of the gurgling Gigue into a rushing, delighted victory. I suppose one can only put this down to the highly trained transmission paths between his ears and his fingers, that he can take that most complex instrument, the piano, with its mechanics, hard materials, sharp edges, and make of it such an intuitive vessel for thought.

On to the Beethoven Op 90 sonata, not as popular as some of the later sonatas, perhaps because of the first movement’s halting, unsure nature, no sooner picking up an idea than tossing it aside, peremptory chords plucked suddenly out of silence, or eerily sad cadences of remote, high octaves. There are not so many Beethoven sonatas where this untetheredness is so marked, and Perahia played it quasi-Fantasia, improvisatory, as if nothing were planned, the turbulence was happening right now. The contrast he thus drew with the sublime, almost Schubertian steadiness of the second movement and its rounded song endlessly returning felt like consolation for major disturbances and grief. Yet such beauty makes the eyes prick with tears too.

The overt sadness of the opening Intermezzo of Brahms’s four Op 119 piano pieces comes as a shock after Beethoven’s reconciliation, but again Perahia imbued it with what I felt as a kind of warning privacy, brushing with the lightest of hands a veiled, almost Debussyan spareness into the falling arpeggios. He’s not a sensualist, as some pianists are in Brahms; he doesn’t seize one with the physical feeling of fingers bunching with relish around notes, doesn’t hit you with its pianism. It’s a more transfiguring, metaphorical communication, quite risky. Some of those swift chords in the tumbleweed, almost Viennese lilting of the third Intermezzo (certainly both grazioso and giocoso) were mere whispers. It makes one listen to Brahms in a less emotionally triggered way perhaps, more to the lyrical textures and marvellous elasticity of phrasing that is possible to pianists with the subtlety of Perahia.

Perahia's virtuosity always comes as a surprise - but last night how he drove at those giant waves

After the interval Perahia was in what’s long been seen as his home territory, Schumann and Chopin, but in another unexpected balance. Schumann’s delicate Kinderszenen (Scenes of childhood) are like little paper planes, they fly up so swiftly and so briefly, each one a vivid, tender little picture created by a proud father-of-seven. You swear you hear little boots thud down corridors galloping on hobbyhorses, or feel a small body curling up in the crook of your arm begging for a story to be explained. Perahia’s such a natural storyteller with his playing that he’s an ideal channel for this reverie of family, paying grave attention to the questions and fears of Bittendes Kind and Fast zu ernst, yet dashing off in childlike complicity in Glückes genug or Haschemann.

And by contrast after the soft, domestic Schumann, a stranger, harsher, stormier view of Chopin. The F sharp minor Prelude No 8 from the Op 28 set that swirls with unease, the C sharp minor Mazurka Op 30/4 which obsesses about a little Polish dance fragment, like a memory, and the oceanic turmoil of the third Scherzo in the same key. Rather than three separate pieces from different opuses, this was a discrete emotional episode in the recital, with the first two as brooding preparation for the Scherzo whose demands start with grand, declamatory chords and little scatterings of silver showers tumbling over them, which soon erupt into positive tsunamis of arpeggios sweeping half the keyboard, and thunderclaps of octaves leaping in the left hand.

There are pianists who make you feel the expected thrills of their pianism here, but Perahia’s virtuosity always comes as a surprise. You wonder at first whether it will be too refined and elegant a bark to meet the storm’s howl, but last night how he drove at those giant waves with massive left-hand weight and grit, with torrential right-hand fever, and if once in a while if there was a little spray about, a sense of one or two men overboard, that only made one clutch the sides even more nervously and exultantly for such a terrific ride. His encore, Schubert’s Impromptu D899/2 - a reference point for Brahms’s Op 119 group earlier - brought that angelic airiness of his right hand back again, the runs bubbling along as clean as a whistle, almost metronomically uncontaminated, making the sudden change to a hectic minor key ending all the more disquieting. To achieve such simplicity is a matter of the most complex artistry.

Listen to young Perahia playing Chopin's 15th prelude in the Op 28 set, the Raindrop

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