by JEFF WINSLOW
A favorite misquote tells us music has charms to soothe the savage beast. But what happens when a work of music is the savage beast? World-renowned pianist Murray Perahia, in the grand finale of Portland Piano International’s current mainstream season, gave us his answer the afternoon of April 10 at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
The program featured works that reflected turbulent times in the lives of über-classic composers Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johannes Brahms and of course, Ludwig van Beethoven. Early on it seemed the beasts were to be tamed, but in the end, something much less one-sided emerged that made one wonder: can man and monster meld into one great soul?
Commonly numbered among the greatest of American-born classical pianists, the 69-year-old Londoner has garnered dozens of honors for his recordings of the standard pianistic classics — Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Bach, and the other usual suspects — whose music comprised his Portland program. All the compositions hid their emotional lives under bland titles, as was customary in the Classical era and well beyond. Haydn’s late “Variations in F Minor” is actually a double variation; that is, it alternates various take-offs on two different themes. The second theme (actually in F major) is as sly as anything Haydn wrote, its smoothness only occasionally ruffled by showy ornaments, like an apparently calm cat switching its tail. But classic manners and restraint can’t hide the pathos of the first theme, which dominates the work, eventually erupting into a dramatic and impassioned coda that sounds like extended improvisation. One of Haydn’s closest friends, a woman over 20 years his junior, had died unexpectedly just a few months earlier, and in this music we seem to hear his emotional response.
Perahia gave us a glimpse of the beast in the coda, but mostly gave the work the measured, refined treatment associated with the era. Even so, his fine attention to detail, a hallmark of the entire concert, was a joy to hear. Every melodic line was drawn with exactly the right emphasis, pedaling was exactly what was needed to maximize impact (especially of the sometimes surprising chord progressions), and phrasing inexorably led us along the full musical journey.
Mozart’s Sonata in A minor K. 310 would be a shock to anyone who knew the composer’s style but who hadn’t happened to run across this particular work. The refinement associated with Mozart is almost completely absent. It can’t be coincidence that the sonata was written during the time his mother fell ill and died, while the two were traveling together far from home, with little money to spend on doctors. The opening movement rages and the finale seems to be tearing its hair out. In between is one of Mozart’s warmest slow movements, almost a bedside scene of expressed love, attempts to cheer, and reassurance in the face of anxiety. It is really almost a Beethovenian work, and Perahia let it go in that direction, while keeping the reins tight enough that it never strayed into Romantic histrionics.
In a particularly stormy passage in the first movement, I first noticed an imbalance between powerful bass and midrange treble. It happened again in the first Brahms work, the Ballade from op. 118, in which the top melody has to sing against a dense and forceful accompaniment. The next work, the mercurial E minor Intermezzo from op. 119, had less of the problem, and I could almost imagine I was hearing Perahia trying out different ways of coping with it. But the piano was a fine Steinway donated for the occasion by sponsors Larry and Dorie Vollum, and Perahia no doubt had already tried it out. On the other hand, the Schnitzer hall has many acoustic idiosyncrasies, and though the view from the mezzanine was excellent, I felt somewhat removed from the thick of the acoustic action.
When at intermission a friend mentioned there were several seats available near him, six rows back on the orchestra level away from the keyboard, I took the chance and relocated. The timbre was different, as the sound was mostly reflected from the lid plus some from under the soundboard, but it was still very fine and I no longer noticed any particular imbalances.
Brahms lived his life entirely in the 19th century, the era of Romanticism, but he was considered by many in his time to be a throwback to the Classical era. It’s a problematic view at best, but he certainly had no use for Romantic excesses. Perahia’s refined approach thus mostly worked even though the five Brahms pieces he selected, including the opening Capriccio from op. 116 and the well-known A major Intermezzo from op. 118, were all written in the 1890s. The waltz-like middle section of the aforementioned E minor Intermezzo was particularly delectable.
The peak of the first half, though, was an absolutely exquisite performance of the C major Intermezzo from op. 119. Of all the late Brahms piano works, this is the only one that bubbles with joy, yet it may be the hardest to bring off, thanks to its melodies being buried deep within a dense harmonic texture. Through some pianistic wizardry probably known only to himself, Perahia managed to keep everything light and transparent, with just the right bits of drama and mystery by turns. At the final climax he pulled back and let it sing, a suddenly touching moment which magically vanished in an irrepressible flourish, leading to the bravura conclusion. The audience was respectfully silent between the Brahms selections, and I’d like to believe the barely suppressed applause after this one wasn’t just a reaction to the big boom at the end, but also a shared recognition of Perahia’s utterly masterly performance.
By far the biggest beast was yet to come. Beethoven the man was known for his volcanic temper, which often seems to erupt in his music, but his piano sonata op. 106 is a monster of a different sort. It’s really a celebration, but a celebration only a larger-than-life figure like Beethoven could conceive. He was celebrating the rapid advances in piano technology, giving the work the subtitle “Grand Sonata for the Hammerklavier,” literally “hammer keyboard.” He was celebrating his mastery of all things musical in the face of growing deafness. He was celebrating the friendship of his great patron, the Archduke Rudolph. And maybe most of all, he was celebrating a renewed creative energy after a relatively barren period, an energy which would carry forward, through the iconic late string quartets, all the way to the end of his life.
There’s actually very little anger in op. 106. But Beethoven did allow his creative energy to conjure what is possibly his most anguished, certainly his most extended lament, and he set that off against what is possibly his most bizarre scherzo, so short you’d almost miss it if you scratched an itchy ear at the wrong moment.
Before intermission, though Perahia played brilliantly at all times, I still often felt a certain distance between performer and composer. With this massive, massively expressive and yet ferociously difficult Beethoven sonata, at last it seemed Perahia was in his element. It seems incredible, but the harder things got, the more expressive he became.
The opening movement, with its famous initial fanfare, is a colossus of the peculiar musical dialectic known as sonata form, and it exudes creative confidence. Perahia was similarly unstoppable, surmounting every possible obstacle, if not with ease exactly – “ease” is simply not a word one can associate with this work, and I hope it never will be – then with confidence to burn. The tempo was brisk, all was clear and forceful, and the passages where Beethoven marks unusual pedaling were wonderfully resonant. I wished for a more dramatic “ta-daaaa” at the very end, but slight missteps are inevitable in live performance of such a work, and here apparently something got slightly off and the energy diffused a bit.
It was the only such moment I remember and it was quickly left behind by the antic scherzo, in which Beethoven seems to laugh, Woody Woodpecker-like, at his own compositional prowess. The scherzo’s trio, a section which only a generation earlier would have been the most genteel part of any sonata, seems a parody of the iconic theme from his “Eroica” Symphony, set adrift in a minor key upon a flash flood of accompanying figuration. (Maybe Beethoven imagined, with vindictive glee, Napoleon Bonaparte, the original dedicatee of the Eroica, being carried over the stormy southern Atlantic to exile in St. Helena.) Perahia sailed through all this at a blistering pace, yet with the same mad assurance and astonishing clarity. Almost before we knew what happened, the last echoing riffs of the scherzo’s reprise vanished into thin air.
But Perahia saved the best for the last two movements. The sobs and strangled cries of the slow movement can, if the pianist isn’t up to it, meander off into unintelligibility, or even worse, come off as bathetic especially where Beethoven indulges in Italianate ornamentation. Here Perahia’s mastery of pacing and phrasing were on full display, and imparted such a nobility to the whole expressive structure that I was often moved nearly to tears.
What can possibly follow such an outpouring? Beethoven seems to ask the same question. The next minute of the sonata sounds like nothing so much as someone farting around at the keyboard, diddling here, doodling there. Perahia caught this random mood – nothing so purposeful as improvisation – perfectly, so that when a rather grandiose gesture, accompanied by trills and the flash of a scale, suddenly turned into a fugue subject (made out of, you guessed it, scales and a trill), I was happily surprised to be off and running again. But where to?
Words can hardly describe the monster that is the final movement, this sprawling, gargantuan (and of course, brutally difficult to play) fugue. It’s hard to say which is more mountainous, this one or Beethoven’s more famous “Grand Fugue” op. 133. Unlike that beast of a fugue, this one doesn’t still sound modern today, but its dazzling complexity easily surpasses its rival. Still, Perahia never flagged once, never got sloppy through the thorniest of passages, all the way to its conclusion at the apex of drama and power. (I was hoping this would be even louder but apparently it wasn’t humanly possible.) Astonishingly, he became more expressive in passagework where most pianists would have to devote more of their concentration to just getting the notes.
I was now sitting in a seat with a good view of Perahia’s face, and rather than becoming more and more tense or focused, he appeared to become more and more emotional! It was as if man and beast, Perahia and Beethoven, had somehow melded into one super-powered creature. It was a performance I’ll remember for many years to come.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer. He serves on the board of Cascadia Composers.