A broken crane dangles precariously over 57th Street near Carnegie Hall at the moment. Thankfully for the hall it seems the danger has passed, but rather than cancel this concert along with so many others in New York over the past week, Carnegie delayed the recital from Friday to Sunday and moved it to Avery Fisher Hall. It’s a less satisfactory space for solo work, but it’s a space nonetheless, and I’m sure this Bronx native was pleased to perform as the city gets back on its feet.

Murray Perahia © Felix Broede
Murray Perahia
© Felix Broede

The programme resembled a Perahia recital I reviewed earlier this year, and it was typical of this pianist’s recent style. Last time round Perahia moved from Bach to Chopin via Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert; this time, we went from Haydn to Chopin via Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann. Consistency reigns with Perahia, and although his repertoire rarely strays beyond late Brahms, he remains unmatched in his suavity and ability to turn a phrase. These tightly conceived evenings manage two things. First, Perahia is able to illustrate the rapid development of compositional technique even over such a short historical span (here, perhaps too short a span, between 1773 and 1839). This was especially true here as non-traditional sonatas mingled with freer-form works. Second, Perahia can display his utter control over his Steinway. This recital was not just a historical journey, broadly conceived, but one in which Perahia could progressively open out his tone, from breezily light in the opening Haydn sonata, through purposely militaristic in Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, to the full, rounded lyricism of Chopin’s B minor Scherzo. Such an approach focuses the audience’s ears as much as the pianist’s fingers.

Surprisingly, Haydn is not a composer readily associated with Perahia: Bach yes, and Mozart certainly, but the in-between stage does not seem to have factored heavily in his career, at least as far as recordings go. It was hard to see why, on the evidence of this performance. The opening Allegro displayed all the lightness and delicacy one expects from such a great Mozart pianist, and the central Adagio was equally poised. At times there was more than a hint of Scarlatti to this, and if there could and perhaps should have been more wit to the finale, Perahia’s fluttering passagework certainly made up.

With Schubert’s Moments Musicaux we hit the first half of the 19th century, and there we would stay. Here was, again, refined playing from Perahia. Sometimes one longed for the psychological probing of a pianist such as Paul Lewis, but Schubert that emphasises lyricism without denying the composer’s latent tragedy is still welcome. Whilst the first piece lacked edge, the second’s insistent contemplation and the third’s minute subtleties of phrasing worked much better. The fourth seemed too quick for its Moderato marking, but with the final two pieces we seemed, far from inappropriately, on the verge of Brahms’ late miniatures.

Beethoven’s C sharp minor sonata – which Rellstab christened the “Moonlight” – was more instantly convincing. It’s surprising how rarely one hears this sonata from top-rank pianists, perhaps because the weight of cliché is so heavy. Perahia’s Beethoven is clean, shorn of the philosophical drive of a Barenboim, but obviously possessing this pianist’s characteristic structural rigour. There was nothing unnecessary in the famous opening movement’s suspended reflection, yet Perahia superbly brought out internal detailing that is usually lost. Likewise the contrasts of the gnomic central Allegretto were never too strong, the pace and attack of the finale just right. For once this inventively-formed work – it is, after all, marked “quasi una fantasia” – was rendered as a whole, the downward runs of the final movement referencing the middle section of the moonlit opening.

A similar ability to find structure where other pianists find episodes was evident in Schumann’s Carnival Jest. Here Perahia began to let go a little, with more wit in the opening and lift in the Scherzino. Perahia is an especially natural Schumann player, his abilities with light and shade fitting well with this composer’s style. That structural sense was again on show in Chopin’s F sharp major Impromptu, but the full release only came with the B minor Scherzo. Whilst Perahia’s Chopin has sometimes seemed too brusque to me (in concert, at least) this rendition struck an ideal balance between powerful attack and sophistication.

Perahia continues to show that restraint, when combined with sensitive musicianship and thoughtful programming, pays dividends.