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Classical music

Review: Murray Perahia’s richly layered Hammerklavier worth the wait

Pianist used the demands of Beethoven’s most monumental keyboard work to illustrate its emotional depths in a programme of complementary works that allowed him to show the effortless grace of his artistry

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 October, 2016, 2:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 October, 2016, 10:02am

Fans of pianist Murray Perahia – and they were legion on Sunday evening at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall – probably thought this day would never come. Despite his extensive repertory of works from the classical canon, Beethoven’s arguably foremost among them, Perahia had always avoided the composer’s most monumental keyboard work.

Much of the reason for the delay was surely physical. In the early 1990s, complications from a paper cut escalated to severe inflammation that required Perahia to withdraw from the concert stage. Thumb surgery largely corrected the problem, but for years Perahia had steered towards playing pieces where the delicacy and flexibility of his playing were as important as its muscularity.

Which brings us to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106, the cornerstone both of Perahia’s touring repertory this season and his programme on Sunday.

The sonata’s popular name, Hammerklavier, suggests its formidable nature (despite being merely the German word for the early piano). There’s certainly a lot of hammering involved, as well as lightning-fast finger work and moments of supreme delicacy. But those are merely the technical requirements. The artistry comes in making one’s playing a gateway to the soul.

Much as Beethoven’s musical demands come in waves, so did appreciation of Perahia’s playing. First came the burnished surface, then the space beneath, full of life and inner richness.

Paradoxically, Perahia’s success came in not making it all seem so easy. Where other pianists might rattle off Beethoven’s passages like so many conservatory exercises, he turned the composer’s inordinate demands on the pianist into signals of the emotional struggle within. The sonata’s final fugue pushed straight to the expressive edge, at a tempo just fast enough to balance inner clarity with a clear rhythmic groove.

How pianist Murray Perahia seeks out the message in music he plays

The Hammerklavier may have been the recital’s rich main course, but like a good hairy crab feast there were several other dishes on the table.

A set of late Brahms pieces, including the Ballade in G minor, Op. 118 No. 3 and the Capriccio in D minor, Op. 116 No. 1, helped to clarify Beethoven’s stylistic legacy. Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor, K. 310 much resembled Beethoven’s musical artillery but in a smaller calibre.

Perahia opened the evening with a solemn rendering of Haydn’s Variations in F minor, Hob. XVIII: 6 that displayed much of the effortless grace that marked the subsequent Mozart.

If anything, the playing sounded a bit too similar, relying more on surface similarities in style rather than differences in musical intent. But in an evening so otherwise rewarding, this was a problem soon forgotten.

Piano Recital by Murray Perahia, Concert Hall, Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Reviewed: October 9