There was a distinct buzz in the air prior to this evening’s highly anticipated recital, a rare solo appearance by American pianist Murray Perahia. His recital at the Barbican Hall sold out months ago, with tickets selling fast before the programme had even been announced. Perahia remains one of the small handful of pianists who can fill a hall of this size based on the strength of his reputation alone.

© Felix Broede
© Felix Broede

The first half consisted of music by the ‘three great ‘B’s’ of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, whose works form the cornerstones of much piano repertoire. Although such works are well known, it was a real treat to hear them being performed at the highest level.

The challenge for the pianist in Bach is that the music is open to wide interpretation, but Perahia made the modern Steinway dance with all the sparkling energy of a harpsichord. He clearly differentiated the different dance movements, from the lively Allemande to the rhythmic eccentricities of the lesser-known Loure. The stately Sarabande was exquisitely expansive, and he injected a range of colours that made sense of the music’s contrapuntal complexities. At its simplest level, a suite is an invitation to dance, and Perahia certainly set toes tapping in the joyful Gigue, his foot dancing over the pedal as the suite ended in rhythmic fireworks.

He showed us the Romantic Beethoven in the two-movement E minor Sonata. This marked the transition from Beethoven’s more traditional three-movement sonatas, as he began writing his own rules about sonata structure. In this sonata he gives us two starkly contrasted movements, the first in a stormy minor key, the second a warmly lyrical E major.

Perahia fully captured the turbulence of the first movement with its extreme contrasts – the insistence of the opening gesture followed by its gentle echo in the treble. His complete strength of conviction was apparent throughout, at times taking great risks to push his musical intentions to their limit, such as the rapid downward flourishes that punctuated the first movement. Although he may have taken many liberties with tempo, this was an immensely exciting performance as Perahia showed himself to be a master of suspense and surprise, unafraid to make the most of the music’s abrupt silences. The second movement was one unbroken, flowing melody, in contrast to the unsettling stops and starts of the first.

Brahms’ op. 119 pieces form the final group of four sets of late piano pieces, and the last works Brahms ever composed for the piano. This can be heard in the way that the whole set is characterised by a melancholic nostalgia. This is interrupted only by the sparkling C major Intermezzo, a brief whimsical interlude before returning to the dark colours of the typically Brahmsian triplet figure. The opening B minor Intermezzo developed a kaleidoscopic range of colours from its simple opening idea. The weighty Rhapsody was a fitting finish to the first half: its triumphant melody was grandiose but never dragging.

Schumann’s Kinderszenen were anything but child-like, being performed with great command and sophistication. However, they would have been no trouble for Schumann’s concert pianist wife Clara, as he told her, ‘you will enjoy them, but of course you’ll have to forget yourself as a virtuoso’. The well-known ‘Traumerei’ was notable for its beautiful simplicity, contrasted with the fierce virtuosity of the ‘Knight of the Hobby Horse’ and ‘Important Event’.

The final trio of Chopin pieces increased the excitement by another notch, from the colourful cascades of the F# minor Prelude to the gypsy flavours and fluctuating rhythms of the C# minor Mazurka. The Third Scherzo was a masterclass in a focused passion that was never allowed to lose control. The chorale theme followed by cascades of arpeggios across the whole range of the piano was particularly thrilling. Perahia gave the music plenty of space to breathe in the more tender moments and this containment made the performance all the more exciting, eventually bubbling over in the final climax.

The second half seemed to be over far too soon, and Perahia gave the audience the encore they hungrily demanded. He gave an effortless account of Schubert’s famous Eb major Impromptu, weaving a liquid line in the moto perpetuo right hand, supported by a lightly dancing left hand. In what can all too easily sound like a technical exercise, Perahia shaped the notes beautifully in a clear musical gesture, proving himself to be a magician who can transcend the piano to produce any sound he wishes.