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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

DGG 47983538

Piano Sonatas

  • Sonata for Piano #29 In B Flat Major "Hammerklavier", Op. 106
  • Sonata for Piano #14 In C Sharp minor "Moonlight", Op. 27 #2
Murray Perahia, piano
Deutsche Grammophon 47983538
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There are around 150 recordings of Beethoven's Opus 106 (The "Hammerklavier"), and a hundred as many again of the "Moonlight" (Opus 27/2) in the current catalog. So any new one had better be superlative, and have something new (or at least "extra" or historically special) about it. Perahia, whose father moved to the United States in 1935 from Thessaloniki, was born in New York in 1947 and has had a career packed with incident. An injury to his thumb in 1990 and a bone abnormality two years later threatened Perahia's career; indeed, he did not play for several years. After his return, the condition recurred (in 2005) necessitating more treatment and another period away from the concert hall and recordings.

There's no sense of injury, incapacity or debilitation here, though. These are accounts full of confidence, genuine attachment to and engagement with the music. Throughout there is that gentle authority that can only come from humility married consciously to confidence. Any hint, though, of the bombastic, the dominant or the tentative or of an open-ended weakness is missing entirely. We are led by an interpreter who knows that, however he approaches these works of genius (within reason), they have something worthwhile to communicate to us. Perahia is also playing for us and not himself. Plenty of projection. Though not at the expense of subtlety.

The tempi, dynamics (perhaps the most striking aspect of these performances), above all the phrasing and sense of Beethoven's architecture, all have a grandness to them. But it's not the grandness of actually standing in front of an arch, tower or high wall. Rather a skillfully-composed – perhaps monochrome – photograph which tells us: "I know this music; you have trusted me to interpret it for you. But I'm also going to leave enough leeway for you to accept that I know you're listening".

CD player controls notwithstanding, the coupling on the CD, which reverses the order of composition, may prove anti-climactic to some. One might want silence after the "Hammerklavier". It must be a conscious decision on DG's part, though; and perhaps one worth pondering. One conclusion may be that not a single one of Beethoven's sonatas (and least of all these two) is weak, and runs a risk of being washed away by another one. Or you may just use your player's Pause or Stop controls.

At first, one may well hear Perahia's playing as somewhat "even"; lacking peaks and troughs of dynamic and speed. Listen more closely, though. Feel the contours of the music as the pianist oversees their unfolding. Then it's hard not to be transported to the Vienna of Beethoven's time; or at least to the sense that we are on the very cusp of the receding Classical period and the warm wave of Romanticism. Listen more closely still (to the opening adagio sostenuto [tr.3] of Opus 106, for instance) to hear gradations aplenty; subtleties; nuance; restraint when you might expect waywardness for the sake of effect. Perahia is firmly in control, and has thought things through completely.

But this delicacy is borne of insight. It's not a search (for a spurious surprise, say). It's a gentle and gently authoritative statement: "This is how I hear the music – at my age of 70. I'm not saying, 'Take it or leave it'; but this is how it is to me." In some ways this is exactly what we want from a pianist – even when playing music so minutely annotated and directed as Beethoven's – for the composer knew that it would both outlive and live through performers and their interpretations. And that it was miraculous enough to benefit from any one of many approaches to it.

Above all, perhaps, Perahia take the view that he cannot really expect us to believe that we are discovering the music for the first time with him, or scooping up and playing the sheets of Beethoven's score as he tosses them to the ground in that frenzy of primary creativity which is so unsettling when we really consider what Beethoven is doing. Rather, Perahia offers us a carefully-chosen gift, the fruit of a long time in the choosing. But – crucially – it lacks the opacity of being wrapped. Or – it has the means of removing the wrapping built in with the superb technique of Perahia's playing.

Again, the "Moonlight" (Opus 27, number 2) [tr.s 5,6,7] is played with panache and flair; though never to suggest the extraneous, thrills, or maudlin in the first movement. "This is what Beethoven wrote; I am offering it to you." But as an alternative to over-saturation, excessive color for its own sake, Perahia offers an interpretation of this always-popular sonata that rests on his understanding of Beethoven's architectural purpose. No one movement (or passage) stands on its own. The music makes sense by belonging. In the excellent booklet that accompanies the CD, Perahia comments on the "mystery" of the sonatas. On the implied strength of the music's interconnectedness. "There isn't a random note, yet it feels improvisatory", says Perahia. Improvisatory has so often been kicked about as a kind of guarantee of quality (or perhaps, rather, fashionableness). These performances from Perahia have absorbed Beethoven's marriage of freedom with rigor. They delight and inspire, as much as make us marvel anew at the composer's genius.

The acoustic – Saal 1 of the Funkhaus Nalepasstra&eset;e – is highly resonant, spacious and giving; and has something of a live recital or concert about it. Every note is crystal clear, though. The recordings date from November 2016 (Opus 106) and July 2017 (Opus 27/2). The miking is somewhat close; close enough for us to concentrate on Perahia's sensitive and definite approach – and not on any "event". For this music, that is just what's needed. The interview between Perahia and Jessica Duchen is remarkably full of insight and fresh perspectives. It's short. But the assumption, presumably, is that we can turn to many other sources for information about the two sonatas themselves. And that we are here for Perahia and his insights. In the end, the test will be, Is his perceptiveness founded, well-formed, valid? Listen to the music as presented and you're unlikely to doubt that this recording deserves a place towards the top of the recommendations of those available: for its honesty, its prowess and its discernment. Recommended.

Copyright © 2018, Mark Sealey