Notes and Editorial Reviews
Variations on a Theme by Handel. 2 Rhapsodies,
6 Piano Pieces,
4 Piano Pieces,
Murray Perahia (pn)
SONY 7796469 (78:27)
Sony’s accompanying press release states that “after a long and successful period devoted to J. S. Bach, Grammy-winning pianist Murray Perahia shifts his attention back to Brahms for the first time in 20
years.” True enough, but what the press release doesn’t say is that there’s not a lot to return to. As far as I can tell, Perahia never recorded much Brahms to begin with. I’m aware of only three CDs: the G-Minor Piano Quartet, op. 25, with the Amadeus Quartet in 1987; the two-piano version of the Haydn Variations with Georg Solti in 1988; and the Sonata No. 3 in 1991. The last-named disc also contained a number of Brahms’s shorter piano pieces, two of which are duplicated on the present release in newly recorded performances: the first of the two Rhapsodies, op. 79/1, and the last of the Six Piano Pieces, the Intermezzo, op. 118/6. Even adding the items on this new release to the tally, there is still much left undone. If shifting attention back to Brahms signals a commitment by Perahia and Sony to fill in the gaps, they have their work cut out for them and we have much to look forward to.
No one would question Perahia’s credentials as one of the keyboard greats of our time. His self-conducted cycle of Mozart’s piano concertos is a staple of the catalog, and his more recent immersion in Bach has produced a series of insightful performances that have contributed immeasurably to his legacy. One might say that Perahia’s mastery of Bach has positioned him well to grasp and grapple with the contrapuntal inclinations of Brahms, especially in what is arguably the composer’s greatest work for solo piano, the Variations on a Theme by Handel.
The Handel Variations has received much attention lately on CD. Within recent memory, I’ve reviewed new recordings by Cynthia Raim (
33:2), Andreas Boyde (33:5), Ragna Schirmer (34:3), and Sheila Arnold (not yet published as of this writing). All had their strong points, but it was Raim I kept coming back to for the most satisfying fusion of technical assurance and structural concentration. Thus, it was her version I settled on to compare to Perahia’s. Overall, Perahia is 1:43 faster than Raim, but such a comparison does not take into account that in the statement of the theme Raim sets a quicker pace than Perahia, and that in most of the variations the timings differ by only two or three seconds. The biggest single difference occurs in the concluding fugue, which Raim takes more expansively—5:14 to Perahia’s 4:53. Only in almost imperceptible increments—two seconds here, three seconds there—does the 1:43 difference accumulate.
One complaint I do have about the new recording, though the doing is Sony’s, not Perahia’s, is that the entire work has been banded into a single track. That made a variation-by-variation comparison very difficult. After careful and repeated listening, however, my conclusion is that Perahia’s reading is more linear than Raim’s, which is to say that he emphasizes the independence and interplay between voices in a way that reflects the contrapuntal discipline he has internalized from his study and playing of Bach. In a couple of ways, this is very desirable in that, one, it allows Brahms’s invention to emerge with great clarity, and two, it endows each variation with its own personality, which in Perahia’s hands can sometimes be quite fanciful. Yet, in another way, I find that this leads to a tendency to treat each variation as a separate entity that is not causally related to the whole. Raim’s approach to each variation is perhaps a bit less imaginatively or flamboyantly characterized, but her reading gains cumulative strength through revealing the connective tissue that binds the skeleton together. Truth be told, I think Perahia and Raim complement each other, and I’d find it hard to choose between them. Both, in their own way, offer much.
I believe it was G. B. Shaw who, before grudgingly admitting he’d been wrong about Brahms, was quite critical of the composer, criticizing in particular Brahms’s heavy reliance on pedals—not the foot levers on a piano, but the persistent and pervasive ostinato figures that occur with great regularity, a signature really, throughout his music. More often than not these take the form of triplets in one insistent pattern or another, and no better example of this exists than in the G-Minor Rhapsody, op. 79/2. The entire piece from beginning to end is nothing but triplets in constant flux between the right and left hands and between the melody and the accompanimental figuration. The same could be said of the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, but Brahms’s rhythmic procedures are more sophisticated and complex, such that one is not always aware that every single measure is triplet based. Perahia is quite powerful and dramatic in the exposition and recapitulation sections, while in the central development section he’s mysterious and searching.
The B-Minor Rhapsody, op. 79/1, is also an agitated affair and as rhythmically complex as the G-Minor work, but not in the same obsessive way. There’s real Dionysian vs. Apollonian contrast between the two identifiable themes, one vehement and turbulent, the other pleading and sorrowful. Perahia is Mars one moment and Venus the next.
Between the two rhapsodies of 1879 and the final sets of piano pieces, there’s a hiatus in Brahms’s writing for solo piano, a period that saw completion of some of his most beloved works. Not until 1892 would Brahms turn one last time to the piano to write the four groupings of pieces that comprise opp. 116, 117, 118, and 119. Here we find ourselves in a sound world different from anything he’d composed for piano before, a world that, in some instances, can be harmonically vague and pre-Impressionistic, as in opp. 118/2 and 6, and 119/1, while in others—opp. 118/1 and 3, and op. 119/4—it can be a shaking of the fist at Fate recalled from the
sturm und drang
of the earlier rhapsodies, but now in foreshortened and compressed form. Perahia brings a touch of magic to these pieces, conjuring tonal tints and dynamic shadings that capture the evocative essence of each of them.
This is most strongly recommended, and with the hope that we not have to wait another 20 years before Perahia offers us more of his Brahms.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
This release sees Murray Perahia returning to Brahms after a significant series of excellent Bach recordings for Sony Classical. His 1991 Sony recording of the
Sonata No.3 has an assortment of Intermezzos and Rhapsodies as a filler, but this new disc sees Perahia taking the later opus numbers head-on, working up to them chronologically via the
Handel Variations and
Rhapsodies Op.79 which, as Katrin Eich says in her booklet notes, each represent an ‘end point’ at certain stages in Brahms’ compositional output.
As far as I’m concerned the standard against any recording of Brahms’ solo piano variations is that set by Garrick Ohlsson on Hyperion CDA67777. Both players’ timings for the whole piece are fairly similar. Ohlsson is marginally more stately in the opening theme, but with only a slight extra measure of lightness in touch Perahia is about 30 seconds swifter overall, which over 25 minutes isn’t appreciable. The differences in character are present, but I initially found it harder than I imagined to expose telling contrasts and any clear preference. I like Ohlsson’s chunkily rhythmic first variation, but appreciate Perahia’s more spacious lyricism in the second. These are the kinds of swings and roundabouts which one finds, and in the end life is too short to split hairs over what, after all, are two excellent recordings. Ohlsson’s piano sound is a little richer and given greater bloom in the bass; Perahia’s is tighter and ultimately a little better balanced over the entire range. In the end, it is Ohlsson who gets my laurels for the fun and funky variations - Perahia for his singing expressive range in the lyrical ones, though both are also excellent in each variety of variation. The richer Hyperion bass line, for instance, gives the canonic sixth variation a special quality for Ohlsson. Perahia chooses to link the notes with a kind of quasi-legato feel in the
con vivacità seventh variation, when the score clearly asks for accents and staccato. He gets away with this somehow, and the relationship with the 8
th variation’s gallop is certainly more exciting. I’m also intrigued by the way he softens the last few
sf octave entries in this piece where the score makes no suggestion of a diminuendo.
Murray Perahia is clearly his own man, and even with this certain amount of license in the
Variations the piece as a whole and all its individual elements work very well indeed. I still very much love Garrick Ohlsson’s performance, but if forced to choose then in the end Murray Perahia wins me over with his alchemy with the variations such as the 12
th, and his greater sense of funereal narrative in the subsequent 13
th, which Ohlsson does charge at somewhat, even though it is marked
espress. He also pretty much ignores the
più mosso marking in the 17
th variation, which Perahia uses to quasi-crank up the tension. This is reversed by Brahms in the waterfall of the 18
th variation and the disarming lilt of the 19
th which is light and detached with Perahia, more sostenuto with Ohlsson which reduces the
vivace effect a little. These are all marginal points of detail and matter less when taken in isolation. I do however find myself agreeing with Perahia more often than with Ohlsson in the end, so it’s a win on points for Sony Classical, though I still stand by my choice of Garrick Ohlsson’s recording as a top recommendation for the Brahms variations as a complete set. Perahia’s is a performance which marries power and majestic technical prowess with a clarity of vision and sensitivity of touch in the tenderness of the lyrical variations which is compelling and irresistible. As far as power goes, it’s almost as if the instrument itself is only just capable of sustaining the impact of those chords at 25:14 under Perahia’s mighty heft, but Ohlsson himself pushes the recording equipment to its limits as well near this point, so it’s about honours equal in this particular superhuman string-bending competition.
The remaining works can be compared with Radu Lupu’s classic recordings on Decca, now available in a highly desirable box set. Lupu’s playing is monumental and symphonic, while at the same time highly poetic and sensitive to the humanity of Brahms’ expressive world and distinctive sonorities. Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu have worked together as extremely successful duo partners and clearly have a similar empathy in their desire to achieve truth in the composers they perform. In other words, there is no ‘better than’ in any comparison which can be made: I shall always want to have both around, though perhaps for subtly different reasons.
If anything, Perahia outplays Lupu in the symphonic stakes when it comes to the
Rhapsody Op.79 No.1. He is positively explosive in the ‘starting block’ opening theme and each of its repetitions. Lupu is more lyrical in the subsequent material, with Perahia separating notes and creating greater contrast and a certain ‘spring’ in his step, something which Lupu paints with a wider brush. Both pianists are masters of colour, though with the benefits of a more detailed and brighter piano sound Perahia gives the impression of wider variety. Perahia takes broader
rubati in the
Rhapsody Op.79 No.2, with Lupu more connected and describing a greater arc, Perahia’s approach taking us through a sort of labyrinth, with each section a subtly different world, but each with a terrifying and awe-inspiring sense of grandeur.
Even more rhapsodic than the
Klavierstücke Op.118 offers the pianist every opportunity to reflect the potential of every aspect of their instrument to maximum effect, from high drama to the utmost lyrical tenderness. I love Radu Lupu’s luminous playing in these pieces, especially in the movingly melodic second and fifth pieces, as well as his thundering resonance in the thicker-textured and more impassioned works. Murray Perahia once again benefits from a more transparent and communicatively recorded piano sound, but is also the equal and at times the preferred option in terms of performance. Take the
Ballade which is the third of the pieces. Lupu drives forward in a compact and dramatic fashion, excelling in the contrasts between the lyrical and the strikingly impressive. Perahia leaves just a little more air around the notes, giving the music a more narrative flavour without robbing it of its dramatic character. There is more surprise in the revelations which follow each transition as well, provided by a more heightened sense of anticipation. Whatever the comparative pluses and minuses, Perahia delivers at every crucial point, with a masterfully emotive second
Intermezzo, eschewing superficial sweetness but still creating a marvellous atmosphere of the right kind of sentiment. There’s a little sonic ‘ghost’ which pops up at 2:34 in this piece, but this takes nothing away from a performance here and elsewhere in an
Op.118 collection which will have you coming back for more, time and again. Just as a parting comment on this work, and while the subject of ghosts is still in the air, don’t you find something spectral and genuinely haunting in the way Perahia plays the fantasy-like introduction to the final
Haunting and hauntingly beautiful moods are also created in the
Klavierstücke Op.118, with Perahia at one with Brahms’ soulful longings, sense of loss and regret, and core of strength from creativity and the human spirit. The first B minor piece is particularly moving, a far greater canvas than its three and a half minutes suggest. Lupu is beautiful here as well, lingering just a little less and with perhaps a shade tighter palette of range and colour, but still getting to the heart of the message. Where he does linger more is in the
Intermezzo in E minor, taking a whole minute longer than Perahia, who seeks to dance more in the central waltz section. Good humour and a kind of infectious laugh come across in Perahia’s
Grazioso e giocoso third
Intermezzo, and the wonderful final gestures will have you giggling with incredulity. There’s little to choose between him and Lupu here, though I suppose Perahia wins marginally in terms of ‘wit’. The final work is a
Allegro risoluto, and Perahia builds something of a fortress with the opening chords, again taking a more spacious view than Lupu, but at the same time creating a larger-scale structure from which to hang the rest of the piece. The ‘lighter’ central section is sheer delight here, the tightly arpeggiated accompanying chords and subtle touches in the bass lines and harmonies creating something genuinely Brahmsian and really rather magical.
To conclude; this is a superbly recorded piano disc of some of the best romantic repertoire ever written for the instrument, played by one of the finest performers of our time at the peak of the mature phase in his career – and you’re asking
me if it’s recommended?
-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Featured Sound Samples
Piano Pieces, op 119: No 4: Rhapsodie in E flat
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