While this season’s offering of Sunday afternoon piano recitals at Symphony Center may be drawing towards a close, a highpoint was to be had in Murray Perahia’s commanding recital centered on the core Austro-German repertoire. The first half thoughtfully paired works of Bach and Schubert, while the bulk of the program was devoted to Beethoven’s incomparable Hammerklavier piano sonata in what was a truly memorable performance of a most daunting work.

Murray Perahia © Felix Broede
Murray Perahia
© Felix Broede

From the onset of the Allemande, Bach’s French Suite no. 6 in E major radiated elegance. With subtle touches of pedal, Perahia’s approach was inimitably pianistic, yet not at the expense of its Baroque stylistic conventions. The following Courante was given with a flowing dexterity in contrast to the more pensive Sarabande. As with the other French Suites, Bach inserted additional dance movements between the Sarabande and Gigue; the Sixth is distinguished by no less than four further movements. There was a beguiling charm to the Gavotte, while the Polonaise was of a refined simplicity, so different than what Chopin would make of the genre a century later, and the sprightly Gigue brought the suite to an energetic close.

Schubert’s late set of Four Impromptus, D935 followed. No doubt local piano enthusiasts saw Emanuel Ax’s performance of the same work at Northwestern University just a few days prior, and it was fascinating to note the distinct interpretations of two masterful artists. Ax tended to favor beauty of tone over dramatic contrast, while Perahia was far less genteel, particularly evident in the opening F minor impromptu. Beginning bold and dramatic, the mercurial textures soon retreated into quiet moments of the utmost intimacy in this music of almost wild contrasts, of which Perahia was keen to accentuate. I was quite struck by the way he voiced the chordal passages in the subsequent A flat major selection so as to conspicuously bring out the melody; additionally he emphasized the rhythmic contours by giving the dotted rhythms a particular punch. There was real fire in the rippling middle section – under Perahia’s hands this was more than merely a polite salon piece.

The B flat major impromptu, a set of variations on a theme of special resonance to the composer, initially exuded a quintessentially Schubertian grace. This was, however, a point of departure for Perahia as he explored the wide range of possibilities suggested by the ensuing five variations, building to a passionate climax in the third variation, the only one to be cast in the minor. There was a wonderful élan in the concluding work, and it was delivered with an authentic Hungarian flare.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 29 in B flat major, the so-called Hammerklavier, is the longest and most demanding of the 32, and one of the apexes of the entire piano literature. Perahia’s penetrating depth proved what a patrician pianist like himself, now at age 70, can bring to a work as famous for its intellectual rigor as its technical demands. As a benchmark, I caught Yuja Wang’s Carnegie Hall performance of the sonata almost exactly a year ago – while technically astounding, it lacked the ineffable gravitas that Perahia supplied in spades. With a grand and declamatory opening, the first movement was of a singular seriousness of purpose, and the pianist added to the scope in taking the repeat of the exposition, while the development involved a deftly executed fugato, a preview for the massive fugue of the finale. The overall architecture was tautly-controlled and sharply-defined, yet within that framework Perahia achieved a remarkable flexibility and capaciousness. 

Beginning with an innocuous gesture, the brief scherzo built to tempestuous heights. A transcendent vision was expressed in the vast slow movement; in spite of its spiritual repose, Perahia didn’t shy away from ramping up the dynamic level when the music demanded it. The finale was music of startling extremes, opening with a free-form fantasy only to be starkly juxtaposed by the most academic of genres, the fugue. The intricate counterpoint never sounded dry, however; the astonishing independence of Perahia’s fingers ensured that a melodic line was always clearly delineated in spite of the density, and matters were inexorably propelled forward with an unblinking intensity. After a series of trills, the extraordinary journey came to a crashing end, obviating the need for any encores which would have felt all but gratuitous in the wake of a monument.