Driving home after Murray Perahia’s stunning recital at the Barbican last night I found myself thinking: why is he such an extraordinary pianist? Some pianists have an incredible rhythmic sense, some technical wizardry, others a delicate musical sensibility, but rarely are all these and many others qualities combined in one artist. But this was how I was left feeling on that drive home. In addition, one senses a perceptive and generous personality in the man, seeking out the meaning in his composers’ works, and not imposing his own ideas.

Murray Perahia © Nana Watanabe
Murray Perahia
© Nana Watanabe

The first of the five composers he presented to us was the least pianistic. Josephs Haydn’s Sonata in D major Hob XVI:24 is a little-known piece, one of his first published sonatas, designed for the amateur market. However, it sounded pretty challenging technically to me, especially in the quixotic finale. Perahia managed to find just the right level of effortless profundity and wit in the little piece and it proved to be an ideal appetiser.

The J.S. Bach French Suite no. 4, which came next, found Perahia at his nimble-fingered and perfectly balanced best. His Bach is always a joy, never trying to reproduce the heartless dynamics of a harpsichord or pushing to overcompensate with excessive rubato. True to form in this performance of the French Suite, he played the notes as if they were written for the piano and concentrating on finding the musical meaning by characterizing the rhythmic, harmonic and melodic riches in the short dance movements. And a thoroughly refreshing experience it was too.

Beethoven’s great Piano Sonata no. 26, “Les adieux”, ended the first half of the concert in fine, dramatic style. This is a sonata born of traumatic events in Vienna, which deeply affected Beethoven, and rarely has the sense of heightened anxiety been so well portrayed in the work’s opening movement. Many performers imbue the movement with a polite dignity which somehow misses the point. Even Perahia, in his early own recording, keeps things well under control. An intense slow movement moves directly in the extrovert finale. Perahia again finds an extra degree of energy and abandon, which created the impression of a sense of the fragility of “le retour”, despite all the bravura. This was a fine and probing account of a very familiar work.

After the interval, we were plunged into the drawing-room world of Schubert with an exceptional performance of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux D.780. Perahia finds such a depth of sorrow and intimacy in these six slight pieces that it is hard to imagine how it could be matched. The simple dance forms of most of the pieces lead to a number of repeated passages that can sound routine, but one of Perahia’s great strengths is his ability to find something new and interesting every time he plays a repeated passage. His understanding of the power of the pianissimo was clearly in evidence, particularly in the exquisite final Allegretto.

And then to end, we find ourselves in an altogether different drawing room. In Perahia’s hands Chopin has an added layer of intensity that eludes many. It’s all too easy to forget that Chopin was Polish and imagine a more urbane, French aesthetic. Perahia’s Chopin plunges us into the darker places with relish and they become the focal point for the pieces. In the Impromptu in F sharp minor, Op. 36 this was certainly so, with the opening musings soon finding themselves overshadowed by an ominous march, which opens up into an urgent florid passage. In the Scherzo no. 2, Op. 31, again the emphasis was on the drama, with a muscular unflinching performance, that he clearly put his all into. In Perahia’s hands, this Scherzo felt it encompassed the whole of Chopin as a man and was one of the greatest examples of piano writing in the repertoire – which clearly it is.

Three wonderful encores – a Brahms Intermezzo, Chopin Nocturne and Schubert Impromptu – rounded off the evening in a relaxed way. This was a rare and beautiful recital by a pianist who is still in his prime, even though I was shocked to realize it had been 41 years since he burst onto the musical scene here in the UK, with his win at the Leeds International Piano Competition. Long may he continue to delight us.