In a concert career lasting over 35 years, Murray Perahia has been a guest soloist with many orchestras. But his engagement with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields is a special one, since he is also the orchestra’s principal guest conductor.

Murray Perahia and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields © Marco Borelli / Lelli
Murray Perahia and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields
© Marco Borelli / Lelli

The evening in the Felsenreitschule, entitled “Murray Perahia - Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields”, began with a symphony from the 13-year-old Felix Mendelssohn: the String Symphony no. 7 in D minor.To the surprise of the audience, this was one occasion on which the Academy appeared on stage without their famous guest conductor. In fact, this isn’t so unusual if one remembers that in the early days of the ensemble, the musicians often played without conductor. While the sight may be unusual, the audible experience rapidly convinces one of the opposite. The musicians are perfectly attuned to each other and the resulting balance is excellent. The most prominent points of the first movement are two themes in which the violins are split. Even without conductor, the musicians played with forceful accenting, weaving both themes together without neglecting either. In the final movement, they created a fugue theme rich in changes, albeit with a form more conventional than the prior movements.

But then, Murray Perahia arrived at the stage. Almost as unfrequent as the presence of a guest conductor at the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields is a performance of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony in B flat major, Hob. I:77. Sadly, one might think, because hearing Perahia lead the orchestra through this Haydn rarity makes one want to hear it more often. He achieved expression especially with his dynamics, he varies tempi and clearly remembers in the Menuetto that this form actually has a dance background.

To close, there was another special sight of the orchestra. For Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5, an open Steinway grand was wheeled into the conductor’s place. First, Perahia sat down and went straight into lightly played decorations. He began slowly, built up an arc of tension which he steadily tautened. In this long passage, he showed such fantastic technique and breathtakingly fast octave leaps that you could easily forget that the pianist had recently been forced to stop playing for a year as a result of a severe hand injury. With the first notes of the Adagio, Perahia had entered fully into the score that was written at a time when its composers growing deafness prevented him from playing the work himself at its première. Beethoven composed his last piano concerto in a state of great despair over his powerlessness in the face of poor health, and he imbued the work with his unhappiness in powerful gestures and changes between slow and fast tempi. Perahia frequently switched from standing up to conduct the orchestra in one moment, to sit down at the piano in the next, fully immersed in his role as pianist.

After this highly emotional last movement, it was unfortunate that the lighting technology in the Felsenreitschule threw a spanner into the works. After several unplanned lighting changes, the lights went out completely. However, this didn’t seem to unsettle anyone. Perhaps, in his time, Beethoven felt the same way about the onset of his deafness as the musicians felt about the darkness on the stage – powerless against the outside influence, but still celebrated by all.

Translated from German by David Karlin