The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Pianist Murray Perahia’s Brahms CD is among the year’s best

December 28, 2010
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Got a gift card to use? Today is a good day to start.

One of the new releases that appeared on several Best of 2010 Classical Recordings Lists is the new all-Brahms album by pianist Murray Perahia (Sony Classical).

The CD (below) features the early “Handel” Variations, Op. 24; the Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79; and the two late sets of Piano Pieces, Opp. 118 (six of them) and 119 (four of them).

Give the recording a listen, and you will understand why. So I am putting it on my list of must-listen albums too.

Perahia is a seasoned veteran of performing and recording, but a veteran who has run into repeated bouts of finger trouble, stemming from not completing a course of antibiotics after a finger infection that then went to the bone. (When the doctor says take the pills for 10 days, the lesson is that you’d better do it for 10 days.)

Each time Perahia has recovered, he has generally turned to J.S. Bach with great success, especially in the Goldberg Variations, the Partitas, the English Suites and the keyboard concertos. I hope he also does especially the French Suites (I know of no recording I really like, though Andras Schiff’s comes the l closest) and The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2.

I like that Perahia makes no bones about how little he connects with modern (he has recorded Bartok, I would note) and contemporary music and so instead focuses on the Old Masters. He won a Grammy for his Chopin etudes and he is also editing the Beethoven sonatas for Henle Editions and recorded several discs of the sonatas. And I very much like his Schubert and Schumann recordings.

In all cases, Perahia, a quietly virtuosic player, is straight ahead in his readings, which are not overinterpreted, over-ornamented or overstated.

Perahia’s up-tempo Brahms – years ago he did a previous album (below) with a fine reading of the Sonata No.3 in F Minor, Op. 5 — reminds of Arthur Rubinstein’s. Here and there he could use more feeling, more sense of a singing vocal lines. But it is good not always to be “lullabyed” by Brahms all the time, “Heaven Lengths” may do it for Schubert – whom Brahms championed and edited — but moving right along has its place.

His playing is exacting and precise. His readings are generally straight-forward, not fussy or precious. You get sentiment without sentimentality – as good a formula for successful Brahms as any.

Perahia’s approach works best in the extroverted pieces (the “Handel” Variations, the two Rhapsodies, Op. 79, the Ballade in G minor, Op. 118, and the Rhapsody in E-Flat, Op. 119) and least successfully in the well-loved Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2, where just a touch more lingering would underscores the poignancy and bittersweet sadness that you find in so many of Brahms’ later piano pieces.

But most of the CD falls in the middle – as Perahia does.

Modesty has its virtues, and Perahia seems a master advocate for modesty, preferring to emphasize the music rather than a personal or quirky vision of the music.

There is nothing avant-garde or showy or astonishing about Perahia, despite his having studied with Horowitz. But here is something appealingly reliable and middle-of-the-road. His interpretations may be where you personally would want to end up if you were performing the music yourself, but he provides a great start.

And this CD is a great reminder of how much wondrously beautiful music for the piano Brahms composed over his lifetime and especially in his last years.

Do you know the Murray Perahia CD of Brahms?

Other Perahia recordings?

What do you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music

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