To hear Murray Perahia in concert is to enjoy a healthy dose of elegance, and a beautiful blend of musical intelligence and emotion. His Cal Performances recital at Zellerbach on this hot Sunday afternoon brought both a much needed cooling clarity, yet also an incredible inward fire – perhaps atypical of Perahia, who is more famous for his supple, lyrical playing – which grew and increasingly externalized itself as the program progressed.
Perahia opened the concert with a surprisingly free rendition of Haydn’s F minor Variations, whose growing lushness he enjoyed with an almost Brahmsian flair. Rumbling effects and sparkles of gentle finesse, which one may not usually hear in more straightforward, “classical” performances of the piece, gave us the first taste of the artist’s versatility. Perahia then wielded the moments of fieriness from the Haydn into a significant, monumental treatment of Mozart’s beloved A minor Sonata, K. 310. Here the artist never gave us the usual “tinkly Mozart” we hear but brought out the most savory dissonances and always gave the inner voices life, even when the accompaniment could (and partially did), on the resonant modern piano, easily cover up the melody. After a beautiful Andante cantabile, with its misterioso moments, the Presto seemed to plunge forward without a single break, or even a comma – perhaps a symptom of Perahia’s Schenkerian approach.
Next came a unique blend, of Perahia’s own choosing, from Brahms’s late music – the Ballade from Op. 118, Intermezzi 1 and 2 from Op. 119, the famous A Major Intermezzo from Op. 118, and the first Capriccio in D minor from Op. 116. This “new” collection was multifaceted yet homogenous, and included many of Brahms’s voices. Perahia played with increasing sensibility and strong-fistedness, although he seemed at times too set on embodying that stereotypical Brahmsian “fatness” – a combination of weight and seriousness – which is so strongly associated with the late Brahms piano music in particular. The grazioso C Major Intermezzo, Op. 119 lacked some of the lightheartedness that Brahms is less known for, and in general, some of the voicing was either too deliberately carved in unexpected ways, or too thick, “even” for Brahms. Highlights included the famous A Major, played with an exquisite touch, and the E minor op. 119, whose twisting lines created an appropriately agitato breathlessness.
It was undoubtedly Perahia’s Hammerklavier, however, that produced the recital’s highlight. The first movement, with its clanky first theme and tinkly second, at least half the time draws from listeners a tired “here we go,” because the piece thickens in content, inaccessibility – both aural and thematic – and weight as soon as it begins. But by the development section, the pianist seemed to tear through the almost sterile boundaries of this piece’s seriousness and show us some of that inner fire, which he had kept mostly hidden until now. The second movement, light and flighty, even tinged with humor, flew by in a blink — of course, only to make room for the massive 20-minute third. Although this movement seeks to emotionally devastate its listeners with plenty of beklemmt (“choked-up”) moments of emotional outpouring not unlike the arioso dolente from Op. 110, it rarely does; something about our 21st-century skepticism almost always prevents that. And yet, for all of Perahia’s relatively cool approach to it, some of its sections really did work that way.
After the immense concentration this movement requires both from the pianist and the audience, it felt (yet again) surprising that the mammoth fugue every pianist fears was still on the menu! The opening’s scattered Fs, wispily played, interrupted the long lines of the third, and, with more second movement-like bombast, plunged into the hilariously complex fugue subject. What followed was a journey of mental and physical athleticism: borderline impossible trills, made possible; violent sforzandos, gesturally emphasized; and a general contrapuntal nightmare – inversions, diminutions, all one could ask for, embedded in incredibly difficult passagework – dexterously tackled and most of the time fully conquered. Did everyone follow all this? Could that even be possible? Perahia’s increasingly visible fire took us right to the end, yes – and, as he would be happy of us to note, the long lines were always there: the piece’s architecture stood out most clearly. And yet, despite of this attention to form – or perhaps, because of it – the pianist seemed always free to surrender, ultimately, to the visceral force of the music.