Concert Review: Murray Perahia in Recital, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Murray PerahiaLast night I attended a recital by Murray Perahia at Symphony Hall in Birmingham (UK). I’ve long been a fan of Mr. Perahia’s work, and when his First 40 Years box set was released in late 2012, I immediately bought it. (, Amazon UK) His Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos are some of the best, and his Bach, which he only started playing in the 1990s following a serious injury to his hand, is excellent. I also very much like his recording of Schubert’s Impromptus and late piano sonatas.

Birmingham’s Symphony Hall is a venue I had never attended before, and it resembles a cruise ship designed by Donald Trump. It is gaudy and festooned with lights and colored columns, and, while physically comfortable, and with excellent sound, is one of the ugliest music venues I have seen. I was surprised that, in this hall of about 2,200 people, where the top balcony seemed to have been unavailable, fewer than half of the seats were sold. It must have been frustrating for a pianist of Mr. Perahia’s stature to enter a hall with so many empty seats.

Mr. Perahia performed the following works; the only one he has recorded is the Brahms:

  • Haydn: Variations in F minor Hob XVII:6
  • Mozart: Sonata No 8 in A minor
  • Brahms: 4 Klavierstücke Op 119
  • Beethoven: Sonata No 29 in B flat, Hammerklavier Op 106

He began with the Haydn variations, which were light and lyrical, followed up with an early Mozart sonata, with a truculent approach, then the more serious Brahms pieces. This concert was a bit like a double CD: after this first part, and an intermission, came the big piece, Beethoven’s massive 29th piano sonata.

A New York Times review of Mr. Perahia’s performance of this same program in May pointed out that the great Rudolf Serkin only started playing this work when he was 67, saying that it took him 50 years to prepare for the piece. Apparently, this is also the case for Mr. Perahia.

Playing the piece in about 45 minutes – on the faster side; many recordings I have stretch as long as 50 minutes – Mr. Perahia began with the impetuous opening of the work, attacking the piano with vigor. The quieter, more introspective sections were lyrical and attractive. But then came the final movement, which opens with those few tantalizing notes before breaking into the huge, turbulent fugue. Mr. Perahia attacked the piano with intensity, drawing out the melodic lines of the various voices, not hesitating to show how violent Beethoven’s music can be.

At the end of the program, he rose from the piano, visibly drained and exhausted. He left the stage, and returned three times for curtain calls. Fortunately, he did not play an encore; how can you follow a performance as riveting as he had given, of a work so unique, with some bagatelle as an encore?

Murray Perahia is performing the same program on June 20, at the Barbican Center in London. According to his website, he has no more tour dates planned. If you are in London, I would recommend not missing this performance.

I’m looking forward to hearing Mr. Perahia play Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto next year in Birmingham.

Update: The Guardian reviewed the Barbican recital, saying the following:

Technique was never an issue in the Hammerklavier, a considerable feat in itself, but the performance remained disengaged, distanced. There was no sense of mounting intensity as each strophe of the great Adagio unfolded, and lots of clarity but no real excitement even in the final fugue. It was a performance to be admired rather than to find genuinely thrilling.

Perhaps the performance was very different, but I was thrilled throughout the piece.