Murray Perahia, Barbican, London – review

The programme that Murray Perahia chose for this recital offered a tour
of his favourite haunts. As a specialist in the composers of the classical and early romantic periods, he has long favoured Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, and here extended his itinerary back to Bach, the focus of recent interest for him, and forward to Chopin.

This is the territory he has cultivated over a career of 40 years, though it felt unsettling to see that the advertising for this recital promoted him as an “elder statesman” of the piano. Talk of his “vintage recordings” makes Perahia, now 65 (not an especially venerable age for a pianist), sound like a relic from the era of the wind-up gramophone, whereas his playing remains as youthful as ever.

Before he sets out on tour with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields performing and conducting Mozart, this recital will have provided an energetic traversal of his favoured repertoire. As one of the leading pianists of the day, Perahia is accustomed to playing the biggest halls and everything here was put across in a pretty forceful manner – more than is needed at the Barbican, which can be a friendly venue for a solo pianist.

This was not immediately obvious from his opening Haydn Sonata in D major. Playful, brusque, thoughtful, this juggled a range of moods with a well-judged sense of balance. Bach’s French Suite No.4 continued in a similar vein, delighting in the contrasts of each movement. It was only with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E flat major, “Les Adieux”, that the size of playing went up a gear. This triptych of abstract mood paintings – farewell, absence, return – gave us Beethoven in full heaven-storming, fist-shaking mode, when most pianists see this as one of his more relaxed sonatas.

The second half moved forwards to Schubert and Chopin. The six Moments musicaux, D.780, of Schubert were nicely detailed, though they missed the self-communing intimacy that we might have heard from, say, Radu Lupu or Piotr Anderszewski. This was very much a public recital for a big hall and Perahia’s pair of works by Chopin – the Impromptu No.2 and Scherzo No.2 – ended the evening with a physical display of force, energy and virtuosity.

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