Barbican: Murray Perahia Jun 20
Royal Festival Hall: Richard Goode May 25
Wigmore Hall: Till Fellner May 30; Yevgeny Sudbin June 16;
St James’s Church, Piccadilly: June 17
Murray Perahia is one of the heroes of British pianism. Yes, he was born in the Bronx, and comes from a Sephardic Jewish family who hailed from Thessaloniki, but he’s long been an adoptive Londoner, and his heroism is of a very particular kind.
A cut to his right thumb which turned septic triggered a bone problem which caused that thumb to swell up so seriously that for several years he couldn’t play at all. He thought he was finished as a pianist, and his solace in the consequent dark night of the soul was his study of the music of JS Bach. He celebrated his recovery with a triumphant series of performances of the Goldberg Variations, but for the past ten years he’s had to live with the constant threat of a recurrence of the problem. He has diversified in various directions – directing as well as playing, and holding the presidency of the Jerusalem Music Center – but every solo performance he gives is potentially treasurable, for both medical and artistic reasons.
At the Barbican he opened with an account of Haydn’s Variations in F minor Hob XVII:6 which reflected his artistry at its most refined. His opening statement of the theme had singing grace, and, as the ornamentation proliferated round it, the melody seemed to shimmer in the air, so delicate was his touch, so perfectly weighted each phrase. This is a work whose seeming simplicity cloaks profound emotional depths and searching thematic invention, and Perahia’s performance was ideal.
Mozart’s Sonata in A minor k310, which followed, brought us back into the real world, its operatic and orchestral elements dwelt on with gusto. Then came Brahms’s Four Piano Pieces Opus 119, the first delivered as though on the border between wakefulness and dream, the second with masterly colouring. The fourth, however, seemed awkward and half-hearted. But the real disappointment of this recital came with Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata. The opening Allegro was fast and smooth, with no hint of the heroic ruggedness which is its raison d’etre: the contrasts should feel so furious, so gigantic as to be barely containable on one single instrument, but here they were tamed and domesticated.
And so it went on, with the Adagio taken too briskly to permit the music’s moments of wonderment, while the final ‘Allegro risoluto’ was swift, efficient, and oddly characterless. Murray Perahia is currently editing a new Urtext edition of Beethoven’s sonatas, and it looks as if this work has influenced his playing: it may be that he wanted, with this craggy masterpiece, to convey how it might have sounded on an instrument of the period, whose dynamic range would have been much narrower than that of a modern Steinway. Which brings us back to the age-old argument – about how Beethoven might have reacted to today’s instrument. At all events, Perahia’s approach seemed just too cerebral.
At 73 four years older than Perahia, Richard Goode is now distilling the pianistic wisdom of a lifetime. Schubert’s last three sonatas form a natural trio, and they make huge demands on the performer both by their length and by the extremes of emotion they evoke, but I have never heard them delivered with such serene beauty. Goode brought to them a light, singing touch, conjuring up landscapes of enchantment; much of the emotion which normally induces pianists almost to tear themselves apart seemed here to be recollected in tranquillity. The opening trill to D960 was just the faint harbinger of a treatment which was companionable rather than doomladen; the turbulent fury of the Andantino in D959 was gracefully stilled. All the effects were strengthened through understatement.
Finally, three contrasting approaches to Beethoven. Till Fellner bulked-out his latest Wigmore recital with a stiffly un-Romantic account of Schumann’s Fantasie Opus 17, but his performance of Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 27 No 1 Quasi una fantasia was gripping through its sheer clarity of intention. After a measured opening, the first allegro burst had machine-gun delivery, and the second movement’s contours came in finely sculpted waves of arpeggiated sound. The pace at which he took the Adagio allowed it to flower in all its grandeur, and the concluding Presto flew.
Yevgeny Sudbin opened with his usual Scarlatti calling-card, and spiced up his programme with a brilliant Gaspard de la nuit plus a Busoni-like arrangement he’d made of the unfinished ‘Lacrimosa’ from Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, but his piece de resistance was a riveting account of Beethoven’s final sonata. He attacked the Maestoso introduction with hard swagger, and whirled through the Allegro with the fizzing impatience one might imagine the composer to have experienced as he wrote it. The variations had some unusual insights – inner voices tenderly brought out – but the whole thing was demonically compelling; as the piece moved into visionary territory, Sudbin found the right register to match it. Now 36 and well past his young-Turk phase, this Russian pianist is playing like a master.
At 23, the British pianist Niklas Oldemeier is still finding his feet, and memory problems caused him to come comically unstuck (twice!) during a gentle Scarlatti encore at St James’s Piccadilly. But what he did with Beethoven’s Sonata No 28 in A major Opus 101 was highly impressive: the first movement had flowing grace, the third was deeply pondered, with the tempi and tone throughout being finely judged. And this was followed by an equally fine Petrouchka. Now we should hear this promising artist in a proper acoustic: the sound is too wet in St James’s.