A Full House for Murray Perahia

November 2, 2013 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Making his Australian debut at the Sydney Opera House, acclaimed American pianist, Murray Perahia, attracted a sold out audience that gave him a rousing Friday night reception, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Murray Peraahia

Murray Perahia

Born in 1947, Perahia waited 66 years to play in Australia while he built an international career as pianist and conductor. Australian audiences are in the habit of supporting big names in advance and then must see if the performances live up to the reputations. Going on this audience’s standing ovation, its members were well pleased with their comparatively substantial investment to hear Murray Perahia play.

His program progressed chronologically from Bach to Beethoven to Schumann to Chopin; in other words a straight flush.

The years do not appear to have dulled Perahia’s technique, although his recordings project a cleaner sound, one that may well have been influenced by his contact with, and admiration for, Vladimir Horowitz.  Having said that, every piece in the concert was technically assured to the point where you never questioned whether he was going to make it, no matter how fast he launched himself into the music. This made the program all about the music and how the pianist interpreted it rather than piano gymnastics where everybody waits to see whether he will land on his feet.

The recital opened with the French Suite No.4 by J. S. Bach, a good choice to warm up the fingers and the audience, but to me, the most disappointing piece of the program. Maybe it was the Opera House acoustics, but it came across with too much legato reverb to really appreciate the articulated geometry of Bach. I suppose I’ve become used to Glenn Gould as the benchmark, with a dry delivery and not too much schmaltz. But here, as it was for the rest of the program, was an individual interpretation that you could take or leave. No doubt, a lot of people took.

The same robust approached was applied to Beethoven’s Sonata No 23 in F minor, Op.57 – the Appassionata, and it worked magic. Perahia injected romance and drama into a piece I thought I knew well, but I might have been hearing it for the first time. His forte passages had awesome roaring power, which he could turn down in an instant (Horowitz-like) to a contemplative pianissimo. There were times when the single Steinway grand piano sounded like a whole orchestra.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wein (Carnival Jest from Vienna) opened proceedings after interval. This substantial piece is in five movements and was regarded by Schumann as a ‘great romantic sonata’ although it falls more naturally into the group where you’d find Carnival, Scenes from Childhood or the Symphonic Etudes. It is not the most popular of Schumann’s big piano works and many would argue it deserves to be higher on the list. Murray Perahia probably likes to play it in recital because of its relative freshness and demand for tonal colour –which he has in spades. Again, the piece suited his musical personality with its romanticism and technical demands.

Which brought us to two Chopin pieces to finish the program, the Impromptu No.2, Op. 36 and the Scherzo No.2, Op. 31.

Perahia gets stuck into Chopin in a way that down-plays the poetry and up-plays the grandeur, but is no less enjoyable for the change. Again, I thought I knew these two pieces well, but they sounded quite different under Perahia’s interpretation – although purists may argue that he had taken some liberties with the score. While that may be so, I found his approach exciting and well worth the detour. Sometimes he allowed speed to rob the music of its detail, but the resulting overall shape was beguiling.

He generously played three short favourites as encores, which again illustrated his technical mastery but confirmed a tendency to bolt for the door.


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