Coinciding with the release of Murray Perahia’s inaugural recording for Deutsche Grammophon – J. S. Bach’s French Suites – this Barbican concert was the first of four in which Perahia surveys Beethoven’s Piano Concertos, to which he is no stranger, recording them with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and Bernard Haitink and, more pertinently to the present occasion, his 1988 cycle with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under the much-missed Sir Neville Marriner that is available on DVD. The defining feature of the present performances was their freshness.
Before Perahia made it to the stage, Tomo Keller led a bright and bushy-tailed account of the Prometheus Overture with powerful opening chords, a rapid Allegro full of pointed, punchy accents and with terrific energy to the close, the perfect springboard from which to launch the First Piano Concerto.
Directing from a piano set nicely within the ASMF, Perahia (using a score) used expressive gestures to coax a pliant reading of the orchestral exposition. The cadenza was the longest of Beethoven’s three, an illuminating masterclass in rendering this composer. The slow movement featured a wonderfully cantabile clarinet solo from Nicholas Carpenter, Perahia keeping the music moving onwards yet with an interior of strength. Boldly painted it led into a light and fizzy Finale marked by superb articulation. The cadenza, again, was a milestone.
The journey from the First to the Third Concerto is a large one. Conducting the opening in four not two, Perahia found the coiled-spring core of C-minor energy perfectly. Rests were perfectly counted, the soloist’s scalar ascents perfectly judged, left-hand semiquavers had a preternatural evenness about them; yet there was tenderness, too. Beethoven’s cadenza (there’s only one this time) found Perahia sculpting new experiences for the listener.
The central Largo flowed. Perahia projected the opening almost to a fault and how perfect was the flute and bassoon duet (Michael Cox and Ursula Leveaux respectively) to Perahia’s swirling arpeggios. The movement ended in twilight, the mood banished by the Finale. The highlight here was the string fugato, perfectly judged and delivered; the lead-in to the coda, too, was a thing of beauty, impeccable.
There is a dignity to Perahia’s interpretations that comes from a lifetime’s consideration. Playing like this is rarely encountered these days. The next concert is on February 20.