In the latest installment of the Symphony Center’s Piano Series, Murray Perahia gave a delightful recital of Baroque and Classical works to a large audience on Sunday. During a lengthy concert he displayed the marvelous touch and artistry one would expect from such a seasoned performer.
The program offered a clever juxtaposition of Baroque and Classical: a suite by Johann Sebastian Bach, the master of counterpoint and fugue, and a sonata written almost 100 years later by Ludwig van Beethoven, who used those by-then archaic styles in several of his later works. Sandwiched in between was a meaty work by Franz Schubert that showed off his penchant for dainty melodies and imaginative harmonic shifts.
First on the program was Bach’s French Suite No. 6, a work of 8 dance-like movements in E-major, BMV 817. Bach can be surprisingly heavy and dissonant, but the French Suites are noticeably more lightweight than his other suites for solo keyboard. There is an abundance of playful, singing melodies in a variety of tempos that allowed Perahia to show tight-knit playing and wide ranging moods.
As with most of Bach’s keyboard music, the French Suites were written for a harpsichord or other instrument that could only be played at one volume level. Part of the challenge for a performance on a modern piano is where to increase or decrease the dynamic levels. In the Allemande, a light and airy two-melody counterpoint that opens the Suite, Perahia was especially thoughtful in placing the volume shifts in the appropriate places for maximum dramatic effect. In the Courante, another two-voice work featuring rapid melodic runs, Perahia seamlessly moved from one hand to the other, carefully maintaining the two separate voices all the while. The slow Sarabande, which is mainly in a minor key, offered some reflection and depth in a counterpoint with more lines of melody.
The first half of the concert ended with a major piece by Franz Schubert, Four Impromptus, D. 935. This work, having the breadth and feel of full-blown sonata, allowed Perahia to demonstrate tremendous range in emotions. The opening Impromptu, an Allegro Moderato in F-minor, starts with a very serious feeling that soon morphs into a lovely melody—a Schubert hallmark. Perahia found the right touch contrasts between the Impromptu’s different sections. His playing evoked the feeling of a soloist in a concerto: one could almost imagine an orchestra quietly backing him up in his more serene moments.
Schubert’s total genius shows up in the third Impromptu, a set of variations in B-flat major on a rather innocuous theme—but nothing in Schubert is ever innocuous. The variations twist and shape the theme in so many different ways, it is easy to forget what the theme actually was. Its return at the end comes with a sense of astonishment at how much variety Schubert could extract from something so simple. Perahia went to town with it, precisely capturing every note and shift in mood.
The second half of the concert was devoted to a single work, and it was a biggie: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106, the so-called Hammerklavier sonata. Beethoven’s output conveniently breaks down into three distinct phases. In the early period, while experimenting, he generally stuck to the classical models pioneered by Haydn and Mozart. In his middle period, Beethoven revolutionized the classical forms in ways that gave him wider expressive freedom, which he used to create music of previously unheard of length, intensity, passion and excitement. In the late period, Beethoven’s music found ever greater levels of expression, with the traditional classical construct sometimes bent beyond recognition and archaic musical tonalities and forms reintroduced, such as counterpoint and fugue.
Five piano sonatas comprise the first major body of work in Beethoven’s late period, and each sonata bears distinct characteristics of the new directions his music was taking. The Hammerklavier brings it all together in a stunning display of fireworks that often borders on hubris. There is a lot to like about this masterpiece, and Beethoven himself considered it his best work in the form. As one of the most difficult piano works ever written, it is very challenging to the performer, but its length and intensity also make it challenging for the listener. Musically, I find its thematic material less compelling than the other late sonatas and several earlier ones, but a live performance is always a treat and a test of endurance.
Although Perahia’s playing in the second half was less precise than earlier in the afternoon, he proved worthy of the task by the end. His initial run through the opening movement’s first section was a bit sloppy, but he cleaned things up in the repeat. In both occasions, he was very adept at drawing the contrasts between the powerful opening chords and delicate secondary theme. He was also spot-on in the four-voice, fugal middle section.
The contrasts that Beethoven created in his late music are on display in the next two movements, a three-minute, playful scherzo, followed by an extended, lush, slow movement lasting over 20 minutes. Keeping such a long, slow movement interesting requires careful attention to the subtle changes in intensity. Perahia provided the right approach throughout.
While it is hard to characterize anything about the Hammerklavier as restrained, Beethoven saved the most breathtaking moments for the finale, a three-voice fugue that, for over 10 minutes, taxes the player and the listener almost to the breaking point. It was an interesting contrast to Bach’s light and airy counterpoint earlier in the program. Beethoven, after a very slow introduction that oozes with anticipation for something inevitably big to follow, breaks into rapid fire runs and trills filled with so many notes it is hard it keep them all straight in one’s head. While not perfect, Perahia was still very effective, playing everything with great intensity and preserving clarity, evenness of touch, and careful attention to rapid dynamic shifts.
On Sunday afternoon, Perahia’s overall performance left everyone wanting more. He must have been exhausted, as one might expect of anyone who ends a long program with a work as demanded as the Hammerklavier sonata. Notwithstanding a standing ovation with four curtain calls, there was no encore. Everyone still left the hall feeling very satisfied, if somewhat drained.
Symphony Center’s 2016-2017 Piano Series concludes with Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin on Sunday, May 28, 2017, and Kirill Gerstein playing Brahms and Lizst on Sunday, June 11, 2017. Both concerts are at 3:00 pm. For more information, check out Symphony Center Piano Series.