Murray Perahia brought an expansive programme of music by Viennese masters to The Bridgewater Hall, culminating in a thundering tour-de-force of piano showmanship in Beethoven’s towering Hammerklavier sonata. There was something quite pleasingly old-fashioned and formal in Perahia’s programme and presentation of it. Sticking to the well-trodden classics of Mozart’s K310 and the Hammerklavier, neatly attired in tails and delivering the programme with an earnest sobriety and paucity of overt audience interaction focussed attention clearly on the music, rather than any extrinsic personalities. His playing was similarly utilitarian and economical in gesture and touch, highlighting the drama of Beethoven’s epic sonata but with a constant sense of absolutely measured control and technical facility.

Murray Perahia © Felix Broede
Murray Perahia
© Felix Broede

The resonant acoustic of The Bridgewater Hall was not always entirely sympathetic to clarity of sound, especially in the left hand, though interestingly this did highlight some colours and textures of Haydn and Mozart which might be lost in a drier environment. Haydn’s F minor Variations of 1793, launched abruptly after coming on stage, illustrated this quite neatly. The latter minor key variations carried a dark fullness in the lower register, and the dancing right hand lines shimmered with colour later on. Mozart’s A minor sonata, K310, found a good deal more fire in the belly, particularly in the first movement’s development, and darker waters of the slow movement. The brisk, twinkling right hand figures of the finale were a sharp contrast.

The most romantic music of the evening came in Johannes Brahms’ Four Pieces of 1893, a curious trio of intermezzi with a rhapsodic finale. Perahia here indulged the music’s breathing space rather more, allowing for greater clarity in the raindrop-like figures of the first movement. The C major intermezzo carried huge charm and good humour alongside an elegant sense of phrasing, leaving a widespread chuckle in the hall before the bravura and grandeur of the E flat major finale, taking the work to a rousing close.

Beethoven’s famous Hammerklavier Sonata, completed in 1818 and so a product of his ‘late’ period, presents huge challenges to the pianist technically, athletically and in the stamina required to sustain momentum through a solo work approximately as long as the Eroica Symphony. Perahia scaled every peak of the work with apparent technical ease and a breathlessly unfolding, thrilling sense of drama. The capricious outbursts thundered from the keys in a manner reminiscent of the Eighth Symphony, while the monumental slow movement, the longest Beethoven wrote, was almost Brucknerian in Perahia’s careful, deliberate tread, sense of space and immaculately delivered shades of darkness of light. The description by an early biographer of the composer of this movement a ‘mausoleum of collective suffering’ never seemed more apt.

The finale cleared the air with further displays of remarkable, though never exaggerated, bravura and virtuosity. In comparison the interposed softer themes brought with them a sense of simple innocence. It was the dazzling semiquaver runs and thrilling power generated from such minimal gesture which left the strongest impression though, culminating in a lengthy ovation.

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