Archive for October, 2012

Murray Perahia

Murray Perahia

Murray Perahia

I once read an interview with Murray Perahia in which he said that he always studied a piece of music intensively before playing a single note. He claimed that, after forming a complete interpretation in his mind in meticulous detail, playing the music was almost superfluous. Fortunately for us, he does share his interpretations with us, although when you see his hands hovering over the keyboard, as they frequently do, you get the impression that he would prefer to be conducting the music rather than physically playing the keys. I’m sure the results mirror what is in his mind almost perfectly as his technical command  is so complete.

His recital at Symphony Center was the first in the Chicago season. The program included examples from nearly all the composers in his core repertoire, with pieces by Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Chopin. All that were missing were Bach, Mozart and Brahms. He has, of course, played other composers – I’ve heard him play Bartok (a bravura performance of his Out of Doors suite) and Britten (in a two-piano recital with Clifford Curzon at Aldeburgh). When he formed a rather unlikely bond with Vladimir Horowitz just before the Russian’s death, he was encouraged to embrace his inner virtuoso by playing Liszt and Rachmaninov. The resulting CD contains some stunning playing, especially of the Etudes Tableaux, which have probably never been played with such commanding authority. Whether you would always want to hear these mercurial pieces subjected to such iron control, even when played at vertiginous speeds, is a matter of taste, but there is no question that Perahia’s virtuosity was up to the task. 

Nevertheless, he prefers to play less flamboyant music, with performances of the classical and early romantic repertoire that are always beautifully shaped and impeccably judged. I often think that such complete composure pays the most dividends in slower contemplative music, where no blemishes are allowed to interrupt the mood of hushed serenity. This was true in the slow movement of Haydn’s D-major sonata (Hob. XVI:24) and, especially the opening movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, the triplets played relatively fast but completely even (a welcome contrast to Kissin’s clumsy and inarticulate performance earlier this year). Perahia also gave a poised but tender performance of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux, one of his most inward and personal compositions. After the whirlwind finale of the Moonlight ended the first half, Perahia started the second half with a lively account of Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, which can sound rather ungainly in less rhythmically alert performances. Here the music danced with verve and grace. The recital was effortlessly rounded out with two Chopin pieces, his third Impromptu and first Scherzo, and two encores by Brahms and Schubert.

I attended both of Murray Perahia’s debut recitals in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall following his triumph at the Leeds Piano Competition in 1972. Sadly, Murray Perahia didn’t show up to the first, although Craig Sheppard, the second prizewinner, was an entertaining substitute, with a colourful recital that ended with Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Perahia’s actual debut, I think a year later, finished with a complete performance of Chopin’s Preludes; I remember being struck by the sheer power and sweep of the final D-minor prelude and realizing why the judges had been so impressed. They haven’t always been so astute since then. When you hear lists of famous Leeds prize-winners, it is striking how few actually won it – many, such as Andras Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida, Louis Lortie, Boris Berezovsky, and Lars Vogt, are much better known than those who beat them. Not a good sign for Federico Colli, this year’s winner. Perahia and Radu Lupu are the exception, not the norm.

Since 1972, I have heard him at many concerts, as well as in countless recordings. You mustn’t go to a Perahia recital in search of danger and abandon; he will never play like Martha Argerich, for example (but then at least he plays in Chicago  – I doubt whether Argerich will any time soon). Nevertheless, although he refuses to relinquish absolute control over his performances, he plays with astonishing facility, power, grace, tonal beauty, tenderness, and unfailing musicality. I’ll be back for more the next time he is in town, knowing exactly what to expect.


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