Bach – Partita no.6 in E minor, BWV 830
Beethoven – Piano sonata no.30 in E major, op.109
Chopin – Ballade no.3 in A-flat major, op.47
Chopin – Etude in E minor, op.25 no.5
Chopin – Etude in A-flat major, op.25 no.1
Chopin – Etude in C-sharp minor, op.10 no.4
Chopin – Mazurka in A-flat major, op.59 no.2
Chopin – Mazurka in C-sharp minor, op.50 no.3
Chopin – Mazurka in F-sharp minor, op.59 no.3
Chopin – Nocturne in C sharp minor, op.27 no.1
Chopin – Scherzo no.4 in E major, op.54
I was a little perplexed by this recital. It opened with a superlative account of Bach’s E minor Partita, followed by an excellent Beethoven op.109. However, the all-Chopin second half (with the exception of a decidedly odd, throwaway Brahms intermezzo encore) proved somewhat mixed. It is not that Murray Perahia cannot play Chopin, for of course he can, yet he seemed keen, perhaps surprisingly so, to present a revisionist view, which did not always convince.
The Partita opened commandingly: no doubt that this was Bach for the Steinway, and rightly so. As Ernst Bloch wrote, when attacking Bach’s ‘vicars’ for wishing ‘to transform these incomparably lofty works into proper sexton’s music’, for us, ‘the harpsichord’s sharp, short sound fulfils not a single one of Bach’s requirements. … there can be no doubt that only our own pianos, the incomparable Steinways that were born for the modern Bach, clear, booming, edged with silver, have revealed how the master should now be played.’ Ornamentation was very much to the fore, or rather was revealed to be so much more than ornamentation; there was something almost of the French Baroque brought to Leipzig in this. Throughout the Toccata and indeed the whole of the work, continuity and the musical line were projected unfailingly, but shading was equally impressive: impossible, of course, on the harpsichord. When it came to the reprise of the Toccata’s opening material, everything had changed. The Allemande received powerful rhythmic characterization, always integrated into the greater whole, occasionally offering hints of late Beethoven. Perahia’s lightness of touch marked the Corrente, without ever sounding light of idea or effete. Syncopations told but were never exaggerated, likewise Bach’s complementary chromaticisms. A charm straight out of Rameau announced itself in the Air, but, this being Bach, the movement proved so much more than that. In mood and declamation, the Sarabande took us back to the gravity of the opening Toccata, with an intensity that yet surpassed that movement, looking forward to Brahms, Berg, and even, despite Perahia’s avowed lack of sympathy with twelve-note music, Schoenberg. A lighter mood, a sense of fun even, was present in the ensuing Tempo di Gavotta, though certainly not at the cost of delineating Bach’s contrapuntal and harmonic meaning. Finally, the grandeur and astonishing richness of the Gigue were fully realised in Perahia’s reading. Defiantly 'inauthenticke', there was here, for me at least, more than a hint of Furtwängler, whose Fifth Brandenburg Concerto recording remains utterly in a class of its own. This was a Bach performance such that I do not imagine I shall ever hear it bettered.
I had perhaps expected Perahia’s Beethoven to be more Classical in outlook than it proved. Beethoven’s flights of fancy in the first movement were given their full improvisatory quality – though, crucially, never at the cost of meaning. Just as in the Bach, there was no question of mere ornamentation. This movement and the following Prestissimo received a surprisingly Romantic, grand reading, the latter highly dramatic, if never quite let loose. Instead, Perahia offered a magnificently ‘constructed’ account, coherent even in, perhaps particularly in, its discontinuities. Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung, Beethoven marks the final movement, and so it proved. The theme was granted beauty of tone and dignity, with not a hint of self-regard. Unending melody was a hallmark of the first variation, whilst Perahia displayed a Lisztian ability to make two hands sound as one in the opening figuration of the second. How close to Webern this sounds! Yet song was of course ever present too. Bachian lessons had clearly been learned in the fifth variation, but there was also considerably fury, albeit ultimately controlled. Sublimity of utterance should always characterize performance of the sixth; Perahia did not fail. He made no attempt to round Beethoven’s corners; instead, he unleashed a torrential, authentically Beethovenian flow of lava. And then, as in the Bach Toccata, the return to the beginning was nothing of the sort; if too much had happened in between, there was, however, the hope of consolation, a hope that is perhaps as much as modernity can offer.
The revisionist stance of much of Perahia’s Chopin was immediately announced in the opening of the Third Ballade. (I am sure his Sony recording sounds nothing like this.) Direct, with nothing of the dreamily ‘poetic’ to it, there was instead an almost Beethovenian purpose, perhaps born of Perahia’s study of Heinrich Schenker, perhaps of the programming. Nothing wrong with that, one might say, and indeed so should I. Harmonic motion was always the driving force in a quasi-symphonic account: intriguing and mostly convincing. Yet there was also announced here a tendency that would equally characterize much of what was to follow, an apparent impatience with what some might, by erring contrast with Bach and Beethoven, think of as ‘mere’ ornamentation. Chopin’s fioritura was not really given its due, as if it were but an Italianate embarrassment. (To Schenker, I suppose it would have had to be.) Octaves sounded as if they were an unwelcome concession to virtuosity rather than a tool of Romantic expression; indeed, given Perahia’s technique, I was truly surprised to hear them sound so brittle. The first of the Etudes was more yielding, though still far from traditional, and the fioritura sounded much the same, as if divested of meaning. Following that, the ‘Aeolian Harp’ study was despatched a little too effortlessly, but op.10 no.4, much to my surprise, evinced real ferocity; it seemed to suit Perahia’s mood better. His almost diabolical virtuosity put me in mind not of his beloved Alfred Cortot but of his friend Vladimir Horowitz: again, not at all what I should have expected.
The Mazurkas fared rather well, I thought. Op.59 no.2 was not a whispered confidence, nor was it wistfully nostalgic. It sang, however, with what I am tempted to think of as a ‘purely musical’ charm, and brought no condescension to its smaller scale. And what command of line! At last the poet spoke in op.50 no.3, though there was great strength to the alternating sections. Perahia clearly enjoyed the (relatively) grand scale of this C-sharp minor Mazurka. Op.59 no.3 combined muscularity with a yielding sometimes lacking in earlier works, though that apparent impatience with ‘decoration’ again could be heard.
By contrast, the C-sharp minor Nocturne was ‘poetic’ from the outset, its strangeness, its sense of alienation there for all to hear. Melody sang and twisted against a truly unsettled left hand. (It is anything but mere ‘accompaniment’.) A Neapolitan sixth sounded pathetic in the strong, true sense, Perahia showing that what might sound clichéd is often just badly performed – not here though. Emotional intensification, vehemence even, followed, without the hardening of tone noted earlier, an uncharacteristic finger slip towards the end showing that the pianist is only human. Finally, the fourth scherzo proved capricious without sounding arbitrary: there was a clear sense of purpose, looking both forward and back. Perahia relaxed a little for the middle section, and I wondered thereafter whether the performance was just a touch too good-natured, for Chopin’s scherzi have no humour to them. The final peroration brought a return to the grand style, impressive in itself, but did it quite fit with the performance as a whole?
I have doubtless been harsher upon Perahia’s Chopin, whilst extolling his Bach from the rooftops, than I should with a less experienced musician, for, as I have tried to show, there was much to praise even in the second half of the recital. But there is another way of looking at these performances. That so eminent a musician as Perahia - Alfred Brendel, no less, was in the audience - refuses to rest upon his laurels, insists upon re-examining such familiar repertoire, is undoubtedly a good thing. It will be interesting to follow his path in Chopin, even if it be more Bach that I ultimately yearn to hear.