Perahia’s Defiant Beethoven
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Johann Sebastian Bach : French Suite No. 6 in E Major, BWV 817
Franz Schubert : Four Impromptus, D. 935
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart : Rondo in A minor, K. 511
Ludwig van Beethoven : Sonata No. 32 in C minor, op.111
Murray Perahia (piano)
M. Perahia (© Richard Termine)
Leaving after the sold-out Carnegie Hall recital by Murray Perahia made me think of a doctor’s office. This doctor would be an excellent practitioner, caring and knowledgeable, treating his four patients that day with full and appropriate care. But whereas the first three are essentially routine visits, the fourth is a challenge. Here our practitioner has to use a different approach and method, and perhaps even consult with other specialists. And at the end what will stand out as his greatest achievement will be the last patient, the one whose life he has possibly saved.
The other evening Mr. Perahia’s four “patients” were his old musical friends Bach, Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven. Murray Perahia is an acknowledged master of each of them and “treated” them fairly during his recital, but the last one left the most memorable impression of the “doctor’s” 80 minutes of music-making on this observer.
Recently, Mr. Perahia has been opening his recitals with one of Bach’s French Suites; he also recently released the complete Suites on his first CD for the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon. Maybe it was time to switch companies after four full decades with Sony Classical.
The last of Bach’s six French Suites received a highly musical, charming treatment typical for this pianist: clear, clean, stylish use of ornament, with all the voices and the bass line nicely brought out. Yet comparisons to another pianist who recently played Bach, Schubert and Beethoven in New York seem to be forcing themselves on this reviewer. All things being equal, why do I prefer to give a nod to Sir András Schiff? Only because he, like few others, is able not only to bring the left hand lines forward, but to also make them dance. And Bach Suites are dance suites, stylized or not.
The Schubert Four Impromptus Op. 142 (or as some prefer D. 935) followed. This was the third time in as many months that this set of Impromptus was offered at the very same venue. After Schiff’s performance in March, Emanuel Ax played them just three weeks ago, and now we heard yet another excellent if different version. It was difficult for a reviewer not to compare one pianist with another, regardless of how dissimilar they were.
These Schubert works have always been central to Mr. Perahia’s repertory; he actually recorded them three and a half decades ago. This recital version seemed to shave off some performance time as compared to the recorded one.
In the first Impromptu in F minor, there were some gorgeously sung moments with the dialoguing melody oscillating between the upper and lower registers and the accompaniment kept in the middle voice. But Perahia’s interpretation was the same somewhat dry-eyed, unsentimental one that characterized most of the Schubert pieces as well as the Mozart Rondo, which followed in the second half of the program. Whereas Schiff’s style was more conversational, Perahia played Schubert’s phrases as if he were sailing with a strong wind in his sails. Both approaches are valid and valuable, I guess.
The later Schubert had more urgency and pressure. It was often played as if in one breath. There were even moments of seeming impatience, though for the most part our pianist didn’t allow himself to rush. A similar approach once characterized the playing of Arthur Schnabel, considered by many as one of the greatest Schubert interpreters. This approach worked very well for Perahia in the second Impromptu, which can sometimes drag, but never did under his fingers. The most famous of this set, the Impromptu No. 3 in B-flat Major, is a set of variations. This piece felt custom-made for this evening’s soloist. It had an old-fashioned elegance and grace, scintillating finger-work and some pathos when needed.
There were also moments when rarely heard inner voices were brought out. One must not forget Perahia’s beautiful singing sound, a prominent feature of almost the entire recital. I guess that the third Impromptu alone was worth the price of admission, though later we got much more than that. If I had any quibble it would be in the last Impromptu, again in the key of F minor, which possessed a ferocious, almost maniacal character. Its headstrong tempo, though exciting, seemed to allow for the loss of its inherent dancing character. There are a lot of scales up and down the keyboard, and to my ears they sounded too much like a technical exercise. I wondered whether the piece wouldn’t benefit from a slightly more measured approach.
Mozart, one of Perahia’s specialties, followed the intermission. For decades we have grown to admire and love the pianist’s cycle of the Piano Concertos. The piece in question was one of the composer’s most romantic solo works, the Rondo in A minor. It was thus a little jolting that Mr. Perahia chose an unusually rapid pace for this somber – even mournful – composition. But it is also possible that he might have been guided by the composer’s tempo marking, Andante (walking pace). Perahia felt the music’s pulse more as a Sicilienne than the traditional, slower two beats per measure. I am quite sure that a Classical Style specialist like Sir Roger Norrington would find justification for his decision. To my ears there were moments in the score that sounded simply too brisk and made the whole climate of the piece a bit uncaring. Yet in its own way it was beautiful, nuanced piano playing with much shading and the required sense of drama.
I recall that a good few years ago I allowed myself to rebuke Mr. Perahia’s approach to a particular Brahms or Beethoven work (it might well have been the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel) as being too “Serkinesque”, which is to say, exciting but at the same time a little too aggressive, brutal, insensitive, with a forced sound. In other words, all the qualities that Murray Perahia’s playing is NOT about. Well, it’s time to admit that the very same qualities I criticized earlier now created wonders in his truly remarkable interpretation of Beethoven’s last piano Sonata in C minor.
After hearing Perahia last season in a superb performance of the towering Sonata in B flat, known as “Hammerklavier”, I expected a similar approach to the last sonata. Indeed he attacked the score with an almost vicious force that suited it perfectly. It was again, as in the “Hammerklavier”, an attitude of going for broke, of conquering the notes rather than playing them as written. Here one could easily dismiss, if not downright accept, the surging of the tempo when the music demanded it and pounding the piano into submission.
My readers know that usually I am not an advocate of this forceful, aggressive way of playing. But here, in the first moment of Op. 111, it simply worked. The Arietta and Variations that make up the second movement also started in a rather unsentimental manner and our pianist wisely avoided dragging it. We consider this particular movement to offer a kind of closure; there were not to be more piano sonatas and very few works for piano (though there are the mighty Diabelli Variations!). Thus we, the listeners or performers, approach this music with a special, almost religious reverence. During the last several minutes of the movement, Perahia made me – perhaps for the first time in my life – realize that it this was a sonata likely to be followed by several others, that a feeling of finality may not be necessary, just as there does not necessarily need to be a sense of finality in Mozart’s “last symphonies” or his “last piano concerto”. Yes, death might have been around the corner, but it was not necessarily expected. And so more than ever I felt in this extraordinary, memorable version, a sense of defiance and audacity and boldness. I am not sure this was Mr. Perahia’s intention or whether he read the Op. 111 score in the same or even a similar way; but at least he did offer us an interpretation that will linger in this listener’s memory for many years.
I mentioned earlier the great master and performer of Beethoven, Rudolf Serkin – known also as one of the ultimate purists in faithfulness to text in Beethoven scores. I am afraid Mr. Perahia would surely be taken to task by Mr. Serkin for distributing the opening of the sonata’s two-octaves motif to two hands rather than – as purists, if not the composer himself would demand – with one hand, a decision that can merely cause some missed notes. I suppose Mr. Perahia rightly believes that in music, the important thing is what sounds good rather than what looks good. Good for him!
The performance, as one would expect, was greeted by thunderous applause and a standing ovation. It is obvious that New York-born Mr. Perahia has, in his native city, not only the respect of his peers and fellow musicians, but also a faithful following and the admiration of a younger generation of listeners. Although the admiration is well earned, his traditional, even conservative, programming ideas might not satisfy those critics who believe that a musician has a duty to perform new music. Judging from Mr. Perahia’s programs, not only doesn’t he share that belief, but he has earned right to disagree. Thus far, he is doing all of us a favor by sticking to his own vision of what a recital program should look like. This time the vision didn’t allowed for an encore and one had, if grudgingly, accept artist’s wisdom of leaving Beethoven’s last sonata unaccompanied.