WORKS: Handel Variations, Op. 24; Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Six Piano Pieces, Op. 118; Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119
PERFORMER: Murray Perahia (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 88697727252
A sticker on the jewel case proudly proclaims this as Murray Perahia’s first Brahms release in 20 years – the last was an intensely memorable version of the massive F minor Piano Sonata and the Op. 79 Rhapsodies (which are revisited on the new disc) – and it certainly burnishes his credentials as a Brahmsian.
His long experience with Bach’s keyboard works gives him a natural point of entry to the Variations on a Theme of Handel, which is taken at quite fast tempos that nevertheless sound so exemplary and inevitable that the whole work seems to unfold in one enormous, majestic breath, with an imperceptible yet cumulatively mesmerising build-up of tension.
This gives a tremendous forward impetus to the final fugue, though the playing in some of the individual variations is of almost preternatural delicacy. Yet Perahia never draws attention to the technical challenges, and the music seems to flow out of him with complete naturalness.
It is however the sensitivity with which he shapes the late pieces of Opp. 118 and 119 that most strongly compels admiration: deeply introspective and poetic in strong contrast to the exuberance of the Handel Variations. Op. 118 No. 1 is again taken as if in a single breath, but with a very palpable sigh at the start of the coda, while the divine A major Intermezzo is so full of spiritually transfigured nostalgia it might be by Fauré.
The G minor Ballade, by contrast, sounds very grim, but Op. 119 No. 4 is rhythmically extremely exciting, a superbly spirited coda to Brahms’s piano output, while the subtle rhythmic pointing in Op. 118 No. 3 is highly effective.
There is a wonderful range of colour in Perahia’s playing, too: Op. 119 No. 1, which Clara Schumann likened to a ‘grey pearl’, comes off with an opalescent sheen, and the stealthy, crepuscular take on the development section of the G minor Rhapsody from Op. 79 is marvellously evocative. Much of this is due to Perahia’s sensitive employment of pedal.
In a sense both Rhapsodies bridge the expressive, as well as temporal, divide between the Variations and the late piano pieces, and Perahia is adept at balancing their inward-looking, brooding aspects with the muscular bravura of their outer sections. It’s noticeable that he employs a greater measure of rubato than in his 1990 recording of the G minor.
The recording strikes me as a mite bass-heavy – though in his actual playing Perahia keeps the bass lines and harmonies clear and balanced – but it is totally acceptable. Of
course this is repertoire on which almost every great pianist has individual views. There are other, equally good versions of all these pieces, but this must be among the best currently available.