I wasn’t expecting to be at a concert on Monday evening, but a chance offer of a ticket to hear Murray Perahia playing my favourite Beethoven Piano Concerto led to a most enjoyable and uplifting evening at the Barbican in the company of piano friends and fine musicians.
It’s hard to believe that Murray Perahia is 70 this year. I’ve admired his playing since I was a teenager and he was fresh off the international competition circuit. His playing is consistently excellent, and while he may not display the flamboyance of others in the profession, his performances are always absorbing, refined and thoughtfully presented. I also admire his insistence on sticking with the core repertoire that suits him – the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Brahms, with Bach his central focus (and if you want a good case for Bach played on the modern piano, seek out Perahia’s recordings).
“Serious” is a description I would immediately apply to Perahia’s approach. His stage manner is rather peremptory – a brief nod to acknowledge the audience and straight to the piano to get on with the main business of the evening. But Monday’s concert was suffused with joy and wit, Perahia directing the wonderful Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF) from the keyboard in a performance which was vibrant and uplifting. And sitting just three rows from the stage gave us a fascinating view of the keyboard (it’s what piano geeks always crave at concerts – a clear view of the pianist’s hands at work!).
The concert opened with Beethoven’s Coriolan overture, ferociously articulated, energetic and boldly dramatic. When I went to concerts as a child, most began with a dramatic overture, a hook to engage the audience’s attention and prime them for the main event, but lately such performances seem to be regarded as rather passé. A pity, as in this instance, Coriolan proved an ideal opener, and the vibrant energy and precision of ASMF became a hallmark of the event. When Perahia joined them for the Piano Concerto No. 2, a special synergy between orchestra and soloist was evident from the outset, with much witty dialogue and gracious cooperation, mercurial shifts of mood, and colourful voicings. The piano gleamed and rippled, neatly dovetailing with the orchestra – no sense of “us and him” which is sometimes evident in concerto performances. The slow movement was a study in long-breathed phrases, the perfect foil for the boisterous, gamboling finale to which orchestra and soloist brought impish humour and vigour.
In the fourth Concerto, composed some ten years after the second, we find a more mature Beethoven, but ever the radical. The opening of this concerto is astonishing: for almost a century before, concertos had always begun with an orchestral introduction. Beethoven breaks with tradition and gives the piano a five-bar introduction, an opening phrase, eloquently articulated by Perahia, which is left hanging and is immediately answered by the orchestra alone. This set up a very special relationship between orchestra and piano, already well-established in the previous concerto, which seemed to reach its apogee in this work. There’s an impatience in this concerto (as there is in many of Beethoven’s “middle period” works), as if Beethoven has much to say and not enough time to say it, portrayed in sections of pure weirdness and unpredictability. Perahia and the ASMF responded to this with brisk tempi and a ruggedness of approach (no long-spun Mozartian arias here) which reflected the forward-pull of Beethoven’s revolutionary vision. Soloist and orchestra were compelling and commanding: there was no time for introspective soul-searching here – except perhaps in the middle movement, where the ominous tread of the orchestra’s opening motif was offset by a controlled recitative from the piano. The orchestra were wild and angry, the piano offered a hymn in response. Cool and thoughtful rather than soothing, Perahia managed the transition into the finale with elegant restraint. The rousing Rondo, with its wonderful, memorable theme, prickled with energy. The solidity and simplicity of the classical ideal, evident in the architecture that underpins this glorious movement, is offset against Beethoven’s dramatic innovation: here is a composer poised on the cusp of change. Vital and emphatic, Perahia and AMSF responded to this with excitement, wit and joy.
(concert date: Monday 20th February 2017)
(photo: The Telegraph)