Brahms: Handel Variations op. 24, Rhapsodies op. 79, Piano Pieces opp. 118 & 119

Murray Perahia (Sony Classical 886977727252)

20 January 2011 5 stars

Perahia BrahmsThere's nothing more difficult to review than a perfect, or near-perfect, recording such as Murray Perahia's new disc of Brahms's piano music. There are so many elements of a musical performance that one can't simply list all the things that are done well. And who wants to read strings of gushing adjectives ? Not me. I will try not to be too effusive, but I must warn you that I feel morally obliged to reproduce at the end the one word I couldn't get out of my head after listening to the Handel Variations.

One aspect that leads me to use the word 'perfect' is the sense of taste on display here. Now that a plural approach to the repertoire is encouraged, no one is going to call any particular performance 'definitive', but Perahia does manage to steer a median course between the mawkish sentimentality and the emotionless four-square playing that make up the two poles of the Brahms-playing fraternity. (Have a look on You Tube to see people distorting the music in the most misguided of ways.) In the A major and E-flat minor Intermezzi (Nos. 2 & 6) as well as the Romanze (No. 5) of the op. 118 set, for example, he doesn't milk every note for the last drop of feeling, but sets a tempo that isn't too slow and uses a nuanced rubato that contributes to the expressive effect of the whole. Moreover, he understands that the difficult stretches and spread chords that Brahms puts in the music are not technical challenges for the pianist to be played as fast as possible – as some younger players out to prove their virtuosity seem to think – but meant to impede the flow as part of the punctuation.

But I don't want to equate 'tasteful' with middle-of-the-road conformity. Although everything Perahia does is justified by the score, a lot of it is still quite unusual. How does a player know, given the absence of pedal marking, whether a staccato is really a staccato or is written to facilitate playing within a long pedal? The answer usually lies in the performing tradition: listen to what pianists have done in the past and do something similar. Perahia, however, has chosen a different solution. The golden rule for a composer of piano music is that, regardless of what pedal you indicate or expect the player to use, you should always make sure that the notes on the page would sound good heard as they are. Perahia often attempts to recreate these written durations and articulations rather those implied, or played by others. For example, in the E-flat major rhapsody that ends the op. 119 set, he takes the written score at its word that the grazioso middle section should be played with legato right hand and staccato left hand. This requires deft little dabs of pedal in between the bass notes to tie over the right hand. Or, in the opening section of the same piece, he uses the middle pedal to hold down the mid-range chords, so he can detach the bass notes as written. These kind of subtle pedal effects are quite commonly used for Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, but it brings a fresh perspective to Brahms. The only problem is that if you like them and want to adopt them yourself, it's going to make playing the pieces even more difficult.

Brahms described his Handel Variations as his 'Lieblingswerk' and even Wagner, who was later to side with Liszt against what he saw as Brahms's conservatism, was an admirer of the piece. These early intuitions were right: it is has become one of the great sets of variations for the piano, following in the path of Bach's Goldberg Variations and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. In keeping with the baroque style of the melody, taken from one of Handel's keyboard suites, he borrows dances like the Siciliano (Var. XIX) and the piece is replete with contrapuntal techniques, including the muscular fugue that brings the work to a powerful close. As one would expect, Perahia is dazzling in the virtuoso variations, Vars. IV, XIV, XXIV, for example, as well as the fugue, and tender in the more reflective ones, like II or V. However, what really impresses here is that, while he always has one eye on the differentiated character of each variation, the other remains on its place in the overall structure. This is a difficult task because there isn't just one structure, but at least three superimposed structuring procedures that spark off one another. The 25 variations are split into three, with a pause in between each long section; many of the variations occur in pairs, using similar musical ideas or pianistic techniques; and the whole is directed towards the fugue at the end, with the contrapuntal elements that are to be used being introduced along the way. Perahia manages to balance all these elements, building up to the fugue in waves of controlled sound to an exhilarating climax. Glorious!

By Marc Brooks