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Putting the Hammer Down

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
05/08/2016 -  & April 26 (Los Angeles), May 1st (North Bethesda, MD), 4 (Montreal), 2016
Franz Joseph Haydn: Variations in F minor, Hob. XVII:6
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata in A minor, K. 310
Johannes Brahms: Ballade in G minor, Op. 118, No. 3 – Intermezzi in C major, Op. 119, No. 3, in E minor, Op. 119, No. 2, & in A major, Op. 118, No. 2 – Capriccio in D minor, Op. 116, No. 1
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106 (“Hammerklavier”)

Murray Perahia (piano)

M. Perahia (© Felix Broede)

“The sonata was not conceived as a classical monument or an act of piety, but as an act of violence that sought paradoxically to reconquer a tradition in a time of revolution by making it radically new.”
Charles Rosen on the “Hammerklavier”

Spring is in the air, so it must be time for Murray Perahia’s annual New York recital. The pianist’s pattern for many years has been to reserve a space at either Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall approximately two years in advance but not to announce his program until just a few months before the actual date of the performance. This increases the desirability of reserving seats well in advance, especially since one knows that the bill of fare will be traditional but adventurous. Add to that his extremely impressive record of consistency and a good time will be had by all.

Boris Kroyt, violist of the Budapest String Quartet for many years, remembers playing sonatas with Perahia when the pianist was sixteen and performing at Marlboro in Vermont. The Russian (all of the Budapest’s members were Russian in those days) was amazed at the level of intuition and scholarship of the young musician as he pointed out to the much older performer many of the subtleties of composition in the duets that they were preparing for concert performance. Nothing has changed: Perahia always emphasizes something new in the old warhorses that he loves to present. Nobody – repeat nobody – has ever played the Mozart concertos as beautifully as he did with the English Chamber Orchestra back in the day.

This afternoon’s program was vintage Perahia: one third Classical, one third Romantic and one third Classical ushering in Romantic. Mozart only wrote two piano sonatas in a minor key, the K. 310 one of the gloomiest of his over 600 compositions. The Paris period included the death of his mother and the realization that he was financially and spiritually alone in the world. Although there are some close seconds, for me this sonata is the most affecting work in all of Mozart, right up there with the Clarinet Quintet and Soave sia il vento. You can hear the anguish in every note, even during the playful sections.

Perahia dazzled with an approach more fitting for an actor or an operatic singer, deploying virtual poetry to emphasize the most emotional moments of the Mozart after taking a stately approach to the Haydn, introducing the piece as if it were the Haydn Variations of Brahms with an airy introduction that was communicated masterfully. There were, however, just enough wrong notes to cause a bit of concern.

This thoughtful pianist presented the quintet of Brahms pieces as if they were movements in a composed set. This would have been a thought provoking approach had not the crowd interfered with applause and cell phone dander, Perahia having to wait for quite a long time between numbers one and two while some oaf let their device spew forth something we shall charitably label “music”. The opening ballade was jauntier than in most presentations, the first intermezzo lovely in its barcarolle section, the third could have benefitted from more rubato but was eloquent nonetheless, the final capriccio playful and triumphant. Clearly the best performance of the day, but storm clouds were gathering on the horizon.

Recently Emanuel Ax featured forward-looking Beethoven sonatas in his recital; this afternoon Perahia focused on the last sonata that looks adventurously backward. Especially in its slow movement, the “Hammerklavier” returns to the strict compositional rules of the 18th century. I’m sure that this sonata sounded superb in rehearsal, but this day Mr. Perahia was simply overmatched. In an aural representation of the idiom “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing”, the bass line was steady but the melodies were pounded out as if they were being exorcised. This led to a surprising number of minor second clashes that added some Herculean struggles that simply do not exist on the printed page. In the Adagio sostenuto the performer made a nice recovery, but its memory was quickly erased in a flurry of clangers in the final movement. Just a bad day, I’m guessing, and quickly exorcised with perhaps just a bit of self-evaluation before selecting future repertoire.

Murray Perahia will be appearing at Carnegie Hall on May 19, 2017. Best to order your tickets now, as no program has been announced.

Fred Kirshnit



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