sat 15/06/2024

Murray Perahia, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Murray Perahia, Barbican Hall

Murray Perahia, Barbican Hall

Master storyteller of the piano produces a rewarding recital of fantasy and dance pulses

The most revealing of fantasists: Murray Perahia

What an era for pianists it was in the four decades from 1800 to 1840, the era covered by Murray Perahia’s recital last night. Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert and Chopin all in full verdant flight, selected for a programme of much fantasy and dancing rhythms, in which the translucent, crystalline playing of the American found and told multiple stories.

Perahia’s narrative imagination constantly strikes me - it’s the way that he can play a pair of phrases with utmost simplicity, and yet unearth within them a sense of rich thoughts or feelings following each other, mirroring the imagination itself. Never a mere repetition, always newborn and fresh. His technique appears to grow intuitively an infinite array of colours, without attention-seeking, but able to explode and flash into your vision when it must. A lyrical poet whose recitals are places to return to for revelation and renewal, after the barnstormers have been noising about the place.

His Barbican recital last year was one of my 2011 highlights, a night of soul, and his Brahms that night reflected the Brahms roll he has been on, winning Gramophone's Instrumental Disc of the Year 2011 for his recent Handel Variations recording. Last night's scheduled recital left sombre Brahms at home and brought us an evening that danced back to his precursors, gleaming with many waltz rhythms and lilting 6-8s. (But commercial sense wasn't entirely lost - within the dancing framework, it was perfectly apt to sneak back to Brahms in the encores, his effervescently lilting Op 119/3 Intermezzo.)

His playing blows like the lightest breeze through the richest garden, ruffling scents and tripping open trapdoors to emotion

The two halves were delightfully poised against each other - in each a classicist in full sonata form, Beethoven or Schubert, paired with a romantic miniaturist, Schumann or Chopin. But the sonatas were also chosen for delicacy: the "Moonlight" sonata Op 27 No 2, a reverie in a minor key, and the uncharacteristically concise, playful Schubert, the A major D664. So not the awesome Beethoven or the introverted Schubert, but a softer-hued, more fantasy face of each turned to us by Perahia’s choices, and by his playing, which blows like the lightest breeze through the richest garden, ruffling scents and tripping open trapdoors to emotion.

There was a predominance of C sharp minor, in the "Moonlight" and in two of the Chopin pieces, the haughtily Polish Polonaise, Op 26 no 1, and the lightly textured Mazurka, Op 62 no 3. That melancholy key and the more dramatic F sharp minor of the eighth Op 28 Prelude offered shadows that offset the delectably sunny uplands of the Schubert sonata, whose opening theme sings blithely, and whose joyous third movement has the piano tinkling like an Austrian music-box.

This less familiar sonata is full of fantasy touches, particularly in the middle Andante, a bare melodic progress of chords that’s almost choral, slipping unexpectedly between major to minor and back, and on a slippery rhythmic surface. This is the sort of ground that Perahia’s deceptively limpid playing luxuriates on, subtly turning the glass, changing the reflections - he is the most discreet of fantasists.


Faschingsschwank aus Wien ("Carnival scenes from Vienna") is a more robustly romantic suite displaying Schumann’s grand pianism, and (as always strikes me when he’s paired with Chopin, his exact contemporary) his contrasting sociability and interest in the people and sights around him. Perahia’s fastidious finger-tone, a certain strictness of attitude and his exceptionally precise pedalling gave a subtlety to the bigscale, voluminous finales - in this, in the "Moonlight" - that never fought away the echoes of earlier pianos than the Barbican’s sonorous, plush Steinway.

Chopin’s first Scherzo was dazzlingly picturesque in Perahia’s invention - the pellmell momentum, haring downhill in an avalanche of notes to reach the velvety, caressing calm of the middle section, rocking in a deeply sensual featherbed, before suddenly blasting off again breathlessly through the bush once again. It’s showmanship all the more thrilling because he jumps you when you’re not expecting it.

I felt his heart, though, belonged to Schubert last night; to the bubbling happiness of the sonata, and the captivating plangency of the little A flat Impromptu D899/4 that was his sweetest encore. One doesn't sit at Perahia's feet - that's not his style. He takes you by the hand, and leads you, like some quiet angel, into a hidden garden of treasures. There's a fragility to his art, somehow, a feeling of ephemerality, which makes it intensely exciting when he produces the cannonfire and bugles. A rare and treasurable musician.

  • Perahia plays a recital in Amsterdam this Sunday, then tours Germany and Austria before returning to London for a Prom with the Vienna Philharmonic under Bernard Haitink on 6 September. The only UK stop on his tour with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields is Cambridge on 9 November. Details of his tour to Europe, the USA and Israel on his website

Perahia’s Schubert touch in a Liszt transcription of Schubert’s song "Auf dem Wasser zu singen" ("To be sung on the water")

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