Master pianist Murray Perahia makes the unplayable really beautiful

By Truman C. Wang
Friday, April 29, 2016

Photo credit: Peninsula Reviews

Photo credit: Peninsula Reviews


HAYDN: : Variations in F minor, Hob.XVII:6
MOZART: Piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor, K. 310
Intermezzo in C major, Op. 119, No. 3
Intermezzo in E minor, Op. 119, No. 2
Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118, No. 2
Capriccio in D minor, Op. 116, No. 1
BEETHOVEN:   Piano Sonata No. 29, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier”

Last Tuesday night, pianist Murray Perahia came on stage to thunderous applause from a packed Disney Hall filled with connoisseurs, dilettantes, critics, and a large contingent of students from the adjacent Colburn School of Music.  There is a certain cachet and mystique about the name Perahia that other lesser pianists can only aspire to but never achieve.  The reason?  Probably no other living pianist can claim to specialize in all the Three B’s – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms.   Perahia’s now-legendary recording of the Goldberg Variations and the middle Sonatas of Beethoven, not to mention the acclaimed early cycles of Mozart and Beethoven Concertos, all reveal a pianist whose note-perfect poetic elegance sometimes belies a cerebral, deep-thinking artist.   As if bent on proving wrong any remaining doubters, the master pianist took on Beethoven’s apocalyptic Op. 106 Sonata (‘Hammerklavier’) and came out triumphant.

But to reach the Mt. Everest of the piano literature, first Perahia needed the whole first half of the program to warm up, and he deftly selected unusually dramatic minor-key works of Haydn and Mozart that were anything but pretty and lightweight.  Haydn’s Variations in F minor is full of unrelenting sturm und drang, and Mozart’s A-minor Sonata K.310 is, in Alfred Einstein’s words, “dramatic and full of unrelieved darkness” (It was written in the tragic summer of 1778 when Mozart’s mother died suddenly in Paris.)   All this gloom and doom dispelled somewhat in the set of five late works by Brahms, which I found most interesting because they seemed to be arranged in such a way as to resemble the musical structure of the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata – a breakneck-speed opening (G-minor Ballade) followed by a very short piece (Op. 119 No. 3), then a longish lyrical repose (Op. 119 No. 2 and Op.118 No. 2), and finally a loud virtuosic finale (Capriccio Op.116 No.1)    Whether the arrangement was conscious or serendipitous, Perahia played these Brahms miniatures with plenty of fire and finesse, paving the way for the second half, the raison d'être of the recital.

Beethoven’s momentous ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata Op.106 is not for the faint of heart.  It is exhausting to play as well as to listen to, mainly because it existed only in the deaf composer’s imagination without any regard for its real-world practicality or playability.   Example, Beethoven’s insanely-fast metronome marking of 138 for the opening Allegro and the Adagio is completely unplayable in real life (Pollini and Schnabel tried, and it wasn’t pretty.)   Wisely, Perahia chose to follow the path of least resistance, i.e. the music itself, and managed to pull off the opening Allegro without making a jumbled mess of the notes, while his trademark magisterial, aristocratic playing still carried through.  The very brief Scherzo sounded almost flippant but was in fact full of undercurrents of conflict and unrelieved tensions.  The mighty Adagio lasts twenty minutes long and must be played ‘passionately’ and ‘quietly’ per another of Beethoven’s impossible instructions – somehow Perahia was able to achieve that with great spiritual and human qualities.  The cataclysmic finale (which Beethoven quipped “would be playable in fifty years’ time”), featuring a massive fugue that defies analysis and separates the men from the boys, saw Perahia weaving the staggeringly complex contrapuntal lines with note-perfect clarity and, above all, heavenly beauty. 

An unfortunate incident of audience behavior occurred that nearly ruined the Adagio with a single loud cough on the last dying note.  Beethoven dedicated the Adagio of the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata to God, so there ought to be a special place in hell for those who try to sabotage it.  Here is a novel idea from Japan, home of the best-behaved classical concertgoers in the world – muffle your coughs. 

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.