Murray Perahia is nothing short of a legend in the piano world. Though his programming is markedly less broad than someone like, say, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, he makes up for it with absolute dedication to the music he loves and believes has the most artistic merit. This was a rather strange program – not because of the composers selected (this was pretty much standard Perahia stock), but because of the abundance of small character pieces and lack of standard “concert works” such as sonatas. Curiously absent from this program was J.S. Bach, a composer who has meant a great deal to Mr Perahia, and served as his companion as he was recovering from a number of serious hand injuries.

Murray Perahia © Nana Watanabe
Murray Perahia
© Nana Watanabe

What at first may seem like a hodge-podge of musical miniatures was in fact a very effective program. The Haydn showcased Perahia’s maturity and ingenuity with music of a simple design, his formal awareness and mastery was elucidated through Beethoven, his development of character through Schumann and Schubert, and his vigorous athleticism through Chopin.

The concert began playfully with Haydn’s Sonata in D major, Hob XVI:24, a three-movement work which commences with a light skipping melody in the right hand, full of grace and humor. Right away Mr Perahia’s musicality was on display. Classical-period music is in a way the most difficult music – there is absolutely nowhere to hide, every note must be in precisely the right place and one must craft a convincing narrative with an extremely scant helping of indications from the composer regarding dynamics and articulation. This is the art of Haydn – bringing out these hidden intricacies, and Mr Perahia did marvelously. The second movement was a lamenting D minor, reminiscent of John Dowland’s lute music, though not totally devoid of wit. Haydn’s humor was on full display in the last movement as Perahia played waves of overlapping apreggios and finished with an almost sardonic V–I cadence at full volume.

Schubert’s six Moments musicaux, D.870, began with an open, pastoral theme, reminiscent of the character of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. This suite is all Lieder, Schubert’s most frequented medium, and Perahia knew this well as proven by his singing tone. At all times he played both the role of singer and accompanist. The second movement contains sudden plunges into minor tonalities, which rise back into the major realm again almost unannounced, showing Schubert’s tendency to indulge in that Romantic custom of wandering. After a raucous, aggressive fifth movement, the work ends in a kind of resigned gloom, perhaps exaggerated by Perahia’s rather slow rendering of the Allegretto marking.

Bookended by so many character pieces and suites, Beethoven’s tried and true Moonlight Sonata almost seemed to be another work of the same genre. It is a very short sonata, though not for lack of ideas. Beethoven’s music, more than any other composer on this program, displays a mastery of formal design and a kind of concision which is his benchmark. Schubert would struggle with this his whole life, finding success in much smaller forms. The brooding and mesmerizing first movement was absolutely stunning tonight. Perahia’s voicing alone was enough to keep one enraptured indefinitely. The bass voice was kept tantalizingly withdrawn, the middle layer of arpeggios rolled along unobtrusively, and the melody soared above the texture with the illusion of dominance, although at all times it was that elusive bass that controlled the phrasing. This was real mastery in the Maison Symphonique. Mr Perahia played at all times with an orchestral style, perhaps because of his abundant experience as a conductor and performer of concertos. The last movement was furiously fast yet articulate, and the final crescendo was breathtaking. It struck me after the pause that Mr Perahia was keenly aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the Maison Symphonique, and adapted accordingly as if he was a veteran performer in the hall.

Schumann’s small character pieces are no doubt his best and most expressive medium of composition. The Carnival Scenes from Vienna are no exception to this fact. Character, precision and contrast are needed for these diverse works which contain strident carnival dances intermixed with Viennese charm and intellectualism, though lacking many of the hidden codes and dedications that he so frequently composed. Perahia again showed his prowess with brilliant voicing in the different registers of the piano and absolute precision.

The most impressive feature of Perahia’s Chopin is his total rhythmic command. Because of this indefatigable faculty, when he wishes to stray away from rhythmic exactness, it makes his rubati all the more powerful and effective. This was very unusual Chopin. Perhaps it was because of its proximity to so many Austro-German masters, but these works sounded a lot like Schumann. There was no showmanship in Perahia’s playing, only a display of complete maturity of character and form.

The audience demanded two encores, and he graciously offered Schubert’s Impromptu, Op. 90 no. 2 and Brahms’ Op. 119 no. 3, to complete the journey of Germanic music that Mr Perahia had taken us on. It was a truly fantastic evening, from beginning to end.

****1