The London concert scene is alive with pianists and piano-talk at the moment. Hard on the heels of Daniel Barenboim’s acclaimed survey of Schubert’s completed piano sonatas, performed on a brand new bespoke piano with his name emblazoned across on the fall board, comes Murray Perahia, who like Barenboim is afforded the status of a demi-god, though more for purely musical reasons.

Murray Perahia © Felix Broede
Murray Perahia
© Felix Broede

I’ve always admired Perahia. My parents took me to hear him in concert when he was a young man and I was a little girl. His discs of Chopin, Bach and Schubert are my go-to recordings for their musical insight, pianistic prowess and lack of ego. Perahia has worked with some of the finest musicians of the 20th century – Vladimir Horowitz, Pablo Casals, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Clifford Curzon – yet he wears his accolades lightly and one has the sense, when hearing him live or on disc, that he always puts the music first. He is the very model of a modest virtuoso.

Perahia’s London recital was built on works central to the classical piano repertoire. In Bach’s genial French Suite no. 6 in warm E major, Perahia, like Gould before him, offered a persuasive argument for Bach on the piano (purists may look away now), and while Gould’s skill was in creating extraordinary resonance in every note, Perahia can really make Bach’s keyboard music sing with a clear sense of the music’s interior architecture and counterpoint. This is the most intimate of Bach’s French suites, and Perahia captured this in repeats played pianissimo (perhaps a little more variation in the repeats would have been welcome) and an elegance which ran through each movement, particularly evident in the stately yet warm Sarabande and the lyrical Allemande. The faster movements were nimble and precise with flashes of wit, which set up the atmosphere nicely for the Haydn sonata which followed.

In Haydn’s Sonata in A flat, Hob XVI:46 there was an acute sense of instrumentation in the development section of the first movement, and an understated wit throughout the work, particularly in Perahia’s physical gestures in response to Haydn’s writing. The Adagio was an oasis of serenity, which unfurled with a striking sweet-toned cantabile melody.

The F minor variations Hob XVII:6 are in fact a set of double variations in F minor and F major. This sets up a wonderful contrast: the F minor theme and subsequent variations are dark and introspective, at times almost Schubertian, while the theme and variations in the major key are whimsical and warm. Despite the subtitle “Un piccolo divertimento” (“a little entertainment”), this is a fundamentally dark work – the haunting dotted motif first heard in the opening theme is never far away – and Perahia brought a contemplative air to the music, even in the more florid passages.

Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata (Op.27 no. 2) is surely one of the most popular works for piano, and for this reason it can be hard for pianists to bring new insights to such a well-known piece. Perahia opted for a relaxed moderato tempo in the first movement, moving forward but never hurried. It was meditative rather than insightful, while the middle movement had the requisite humour and rusticity. But it was in the final movement that Perahia’s fleet fingers and pristine passagework really came to the fore, coupled with a clear sense of the music’s drama. Energetic and emphatic, Perahia propelled the music forward to its conclusion, and its darkness was a portent of what was to follow after the interval.

In Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, Perahia created a heightened sense of a rhapsody with a clear narrative, especially in the Prelude, which at times sounded improvisatory in his handling of the sighing motif, which returns throughout the work. Generous yet tasteful use of the sustain pedal brought a sonic richness to the music and the Lisztian flourishes were managed with lightness and ease.

The concert ended with Chopin’s Scherzo no. 1 in B minor, a work whose dramatic “cannons buried beneath flowers” (Robert Schumann) belies the meaning of the word “scherzo” (playful or humorous). In Perahia’s hands, Chopin’s seething chromatic outbursts were earnest, fleet and fiery, poetically offset by tender playing of the middle section.

Three generous encores followed: the Étude Op.25 no. 1 and the F major Nocturne (Op.15 no. 1) by Chopin, and a humorous movement from Schumann’s Fantasiestucke to lighten the mood and recall the wit of Haydn.