Classical Music Review: Perahia Perdures

By Caldwell Titcomb

Murray Perahia is the greatest living pianist – and you can take that to the bank.

In 1974 I went to Boston’s Jordan Hall to hear a recital by the famous British tenor Peter Pears (1910-86), who would be knighted four years later. At the end of the concert it was clear that the piano collaboration was the most impressive I had ever heard in a song recital. The pianist on this occasion was someone named Murray Perahia, who, I learned, had in 1965 won the Young Artists International Auditions at 18 and gone on to cop first prize in the 1972 Leeds International Piano Competition at the age of 25. Since then I have followed his career with unflagging admiration.

Bronx-born but a longtime London resident, he gave his first Boston solo recital in 1977. In the 1990s he suffered a right-hand injury and a bone abnormality that kept him off the concert stage for several years, and later problems caused a number of cancellations. Still, he amassed a stream of superb recordings – among them a Grammy-winning CD of the complete Chopin Etudes, which had never been equaled and will never be surpassed.

On March 29 he was back in Boston for his twelfth Celebrity Series appearance. He chose a program of four staples by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, performed in chronological order.

First came Bach. As I pointed out in my review of Bach-specialist Angela Hewitt’s February 22 recital, some puristically maintain that Bach ought to be played only on the harpsichord or clavichord. The former permits terraced but not graded dynamics. The latter allows both, but is so soft that it chiefly gratifies the player but is not really suitable for audiences. There are many who will be surprised to learn that Bach, late in his life, tried out Gottfried Silbermann’s fledgling pianos, suggested some improvements, praised the changes and became an agent for Silbermann’s instruments. So pianists should feel quite entitled to perform Bach.

Perahia chose to present the Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825, which Bach himself published in 1726. Five more would follow, and Perahia released a CD recording of Nos. 2, 3, and 4 a few months ago, with Nos. 1, 5, and 6 likely to appear in due course. To the usual four suite movements – allemande, courante/corrente, sarabande, and gigue – Bach added a praeludium and a minuet I & II. Perahia’s playing was clean and crisp, with little or no pedal. And Bach and performer both had fun with the constantly crossing hands in the concluding gigue.

Mozart was represented by his Sonata in F-Major, K. 332, dating from around 1782. There was emphasis on lucidity and structure. Perahia fully captured the first movement’s playfulness, and correctly took the exposition repeat. The adagio was a highly embellished aria for the right hand, with unexpected tonal wanderings. The hyperactive finale raised smiles with its stop-and-go coda.

For Beethoven we got the celebrated Sonata in F-Minor, Op. 57 (finished in 1805), to which a publisher reasonably affixed the sobriquet “Appassionata” eleven years after the composer’s death. This is a revolutionary work, and Perahia properly shifted into an aggressive mood for its wide and unpredictable range of dynamics. The prevailing storminess was relieved only by Perahia’s singing tone in the central Andante.

Following intermission, Perahia programmed “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel,” Op. 24 (1861), written by Brahms as a virtuoso vehicle for his own concertizing. The theme-and-variations genre has been a favorite with composers from the14th century to the present, though it has produced much run-of-the-mill results. Bach reached a zenith with his “Goldberg Variations” and Beethoven with his “Diabelli Variations.” But no composer in history has given us so many marvelous examples as Brahms.

The “Handel Variations,” twenty-five in number, are cast largely in B-flat major, with three in B-flat minor and one in G-minor. They all employ binary form (two equal sections, each repeated). The emotional range is enormous: bravura, mysterious, military, expressive, even tinkly like a music-box. Perahia understood each to perfection. This monumental work culminates in a huge fugue that Perahia exploited to full glory.

As an encore, Perahia played Schubert’s E-flat Impromptu, Op. 90, No. 2, with its delightful chromatic runs in the right hand. Perahia plays the same program in New York’s Avery Fisher Hall on March 31.

For my money, Perahia is the greatest living pianist – and you can quote me on that.


  1. Matt Mclaughlin on August 7, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Thanks for the post! I really enjoyed reading it.

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