Arts & Events

New: Murray Perahia Performs at Zellerbach

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday April 18, 2016 - 12:37:00 PM

Pianist Murray Perahia has been in the spotlight for more than 40 years. I first heard him play in a recital in Princeton, New Jersey, back in 1979-80. Now, on Sunday, April 17, he returned to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall for a recital under the auspices of Cal Performances. On the program were works by Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven.

The opening work was Joseph Haydn’s Variations in F minor, a piece published in 1799, late in Haydn’s long career. It was hailed by scholar A. Peter Brown as a work that “presents a microcosmic but complete view of Haydn’s late keyboard style.” In this brief set of variations, two themes are developed. The first, in F minor, seems melancholy but deeply felt. The second, in F Major, reveals a brighter mood, and it is decorated by a number of brief right-hand runs that are the pianistic equivalent of a singer’s trills. Murray Perahia was particularly expressive in handling the second, brighter theme, which included much cross-handed virtuosity.  


Next on the program was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sonata in A minor, K. 310. Composed in Paris in 1778, this sonata’s somber quality, “dramatic and full of unrelieved darkness” wrote Alfred Einstein, is quite different from the majority of showy but superficial works Mozart created for the Parisian audiences. This leads scholars to conclude that Mozart wrote this A minor Sonata largely for himself. In fact, this sonata marks a definite advance in Mozart’s expressivity. The opening movement, with its pervading sense of drama, foreshadows Mozart’s writing for the opera Don Giovanni and the great G minor Symphony, as well as the G minor Quintet, and the Requiem. Here one encounters dynamic contrasts, surging rhythms, and expressive harmonies. The second movement, an Andante cantabile, begins in a bright major key, but shortly turns melancholy in a minor key, while in its middle section it explores some of the dramatic material of the opening movement. In the closing Presto movement, Mozart alternates major and minor, light and shadow, hope and melancholy, thus continuing this work’s exploration of deeply contrasting emotional; states. In Murray Perahia’s hands, Mozart’s A minor Sonata was given a sensitive, technically superb interpretation. 

Following the Mozart sonata was a selection of Late Piano Works by Johannes Brahms. For this program, Perahia chose to play short pieces composed by Brahms in 1892-3. First came the Ballade in G minor, Op. 118, No. 3, whose outer sections offer turbulent march-like music while the middle section develops earlier material in a gently flowing manner. Next came the Intermezzo in C Major, Op.119, No. 3, which revealed Brahms in a happy, cheerful mood; and this gaiety was evident in Perahia’s sensitive playing. The Intermezzo in E minor, Op. 119, No. 2, however, found Brahms at his most agitated and turbulent; and this too was emphasized in Perahia’s assertive approach. Following this came what for me was one of the highlights of the recital – Brahms’ Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2. This is a work of dreamy, wistful lyricism. As played by Murray Perahia, this beautiful piece was never showy but, rather, deeply introspective, its melodies flowing easily as if in dream. Then, to round out the first portion of this recital, came Brahms’ Capriccio in D minor, Op. 116, No. 1, in which we encounter once again the turbulent, even bombastic Brahms who gives voice to all sorts of unsettled emotions.  

After intermission Perahia returned to play Ludwig von Beethoven’s Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 106, Hammerklavier. This work, which Beethoven composed in 1817-18, is often cited as the first of Beethoven’s “late style,” in which the composer strove for both greater concentration and greater expansion than he had achieved in his earlier works. In late works such as the Hammerklavier Sonata, the Missa Solemnis, the Ninth Symphony, the late string quartets and late piano sonatas, Beethoven gave expression to a vast range of emotions, employing contrasting dynamics, muscular rhythms, and daring harmonies. The Hammerklavier Sonata opens with an Allegro that boldly asserts a turbulent first theme, then develops a second theme in cantabile fashion. Then comes a brief but powerful Scherzo, followed by a wondrous Adagio that is the broadest slow movement ever penned by Beethoven. As I listened to Murray Perahia’s sensitive playing of this Adagio, I asked myself what emotions was Beethoven expressing here? Was this music sad? Was it melancholy? Was it radiant and affirmative? Was it troubled? Was it searching? Ultimately, I realized, this music was all of the above, each in turn, yet always searching. This Adagio was unquestionably the highlight of this recital. In fact, so sublime was Perahia’s rendition of the Adagio that I found myself regretting it when Perahia launched into the closing fugue of the Hammerklavier Sonata. This fugue, unlike, say, the Grosse Fugue that closes Beethoven’s Op. 130 String Quartet, manages to lose me from beginning to end. While I am ever-present in listening to the Grosse Fugue, I can never seem to get into the closing fugue of the Hammerklavier Sonata. While I can appreciate it, especially when played by a virtuoso pianist such as Murray Perahia, this fugue leaves me out in the cold. Oh well, at least I have the wondrous Adagio to warm my memories of this excellent recital by Murray Perahia.