Murray Perahia’s programmes are always tidily thought through, exploring interrelationships between pieces and building progressively, often from Bach to Chopin via Beethoven. This was no different, with Bach and Chopin the bread to a sandwich of late Brahms and lesser-known Beethoven and Schubert. Though the Chopin was a little abrupt, this was a thorougly satisfying concert.

Murray Perahia © Felix Broede
Murray Perahia
© Felix Broede

Sophistication and sensitivity are Perahia trademarks, particularly in Bach. Played with a Mozartean grace in the slower movements and a Beethovenian intensity in the quicker dances, this was Bach of a flexible, cantabile quality that one rarely hears even now that the period-instrument movement’s zeal is dying away. The exquisite placing of the Allemande’s opening notes – hands balanced, contrapuntal and delicate of touch – heralded a performance of elegant buoyancy. Sadness, as in the Sarabande, had a dignified air, whilst the inventive joys of the Gavotte were delivered with an aristocratic loftiness, the grading of its staccato chords immaculate. The Gigue, taken with a vigorous but far from overbearing zest, shocked with its jovial lightness of touch and freedom of fugal articulation.

If fluidity had characterised the Bach, it continued in the first movement of the Beethoven. A steep ritardando from its opening chords did not seem out of place when followed by a rubato so clearly wedded to rhythmic propulsion and a focus on harmonic shifts. There was a sharp clarity of attack here, even if that showed how much this Op. 90 sonata is a preparatory work for the Hammerklavier and the Op. 110. Regardless, Perahia pointed us forwards further still, enjoying harmonic clashes and suspensions such as to be found in the Brahms later in the concert. Yet after the concentration of the Bach and the Beethoven’s first movement, Beethoven’s tricky airiness in the second half fell comparatively flat. Although the lyricism of its heavily repeated melody at times tended interestingly towards Schubert’s Impromptus, the rapt simplicity Perahia brought to other parts of this programme were slightly missing here.

There was a brusqueness to the closing Chopin as well, at least in the context of the opening Bach’s fragility – and in a concert like this, context is key. The first Polonaise flashed by, its ornaments whizzing, its nationalism more virtuosic than ambivalent. The third Scherzo too was simultaneously curt and blurred in a wash of pedal. That said, the brief F sharp minor Prélude from Op. 28 and the C sharp minor Mazurka found Perahia at his Chopin best, the deftness of the cascading right hand in the former matched by the breeziness of the gnomic rhythmic figure in the latter.

Schubert’s earlier A major sonata (D.664) and Brahms’s final piano works (Op. 119) were back on the heavenly level of the Bach. The Schubert, perhaps the earliest of the composer’s piano sonatas to be played with regularity, seemed rightly to span Beethoven and Brahms whilst foreshadowing the terrors of the composer’s later sonata in the same key (D.959). Schubert’s typical mix of melodious hope and chronic instability came properly across, the gorgeous idylls of the first and second movements progressively shattering on their respective harmonic and rhythmic discontents.

But it was the Brahms that was most memorable. It sounded more precise than on Perahia’s magnificent recent recording, a function no doubt of the Bach that preceded it, but also more passionate still after the ambivalence of the Beethoven. Perahia’s control of the changing atmospheres of these miraculous late pieces was superb, particularly in the way the Debussy-like cloudy wispiness of the first slowly progressed downwards into the inner turmoils of a character staring helplessly skyward.

The E minor Intermezzo was a da capo aria in all but name, angrier and yet less insistent the second time around. The tempered pleasures of the short, scherzo-like C major were unstable and yet serene: the contrasts with the final Rhapsody would have been all the greater and more satisyfing had the pianist not been interrupted by applause. Despite this unhappy interruption, its moody volatility was subsumed in a single journey. The harsh irony directed at the fluttering charms of the grazioso interlude was transmuted into a triumph of the opening material – triumph such as its ambivalence allows, mocking itself before thumping out not in the expected major but in the parallel minor. Brahms’ tragic realism could not have been more cogently expressed.