Murray Perahia plays Chopin
The Chopin anniversary year of 2010 understandably saw a maelstrom of Chopin recordings, making selection a tricky and subjective issue. Yet Sony’s five-disc reissue of Murray Perahia’s discs spanning a 28‑year period is surely the most distinguished of all: a reflection of Chopin’s unique balance of Gallic poise and Slavic passion, a flawless yet audacious mix of what EM Forster once called “the prose and the passion”.
I know there are those who feel that Perahia’s immaculate taste and precision are at the expense of a greater spontaneity, who long for him to break out from such contained and crystalline perfection, yet I have to say that exaggeration and artificiality have always been alien to his patrician nature. You may hear more idiosyncratic Chopin from, say, Cortot, Moiseiwitsch, Cherkassky and Horowitz (whose Chopin was aptly described by Rudolf Serkin as “like a fireball exploding”), or a more “boggle-factor” virtuosity from Lazar Berman, but you will rarely hear such classic strength of purpose, such poetry and lucidity. Every bar, indeed every note is deeply considered, yet the effect is as natural as it is unarguable. Nothing will lure Perahia from such poise and all his performances declare that Chopin is far too great a composer for even a hint of exhibitionism.
Perahia has often mentioned his love of a past generation of master-pianists, of Cortot, Schnabel and Edwin Fischer, but he is surely the true heir to Rubinstein, whose heroic rescue of Chopin from salon accretion and sentimentality he proudly emulates. Few if any performances have excelled, let alone surpassed his exquisite grace in the Berceuse, in that “rain of silvery fire”, and what a sense of wonder he achieves in the ballade-like progression of the Second Impromptu. It is hardly surprising that many years ago two then stars of the Juilliard School in New York turned their initial condescension towards a pianist they considered from a lesser establishment (the Mannes School) into awe and envy as they listened to Perahia’s way with Chopin’s Impromptus. Try the central oases of calm in the Scherzo and Funeral March of the Second Sonata, or the quaver flow at the heart of the Third Sonata’s Largo, and you will hear a musical and technical ideal far removed from cloying decadence or excess.
Again, what mastery in the codas of the Four Ballades (for Claudio Arrau an ultimate challenge), where every intricacy is resolved with a translucency that few could equal. A rapidly flowing way with the E flat minor Etude from Op 10 may raise a few eyebrows, yet the music’s malaise and morbidity remain, and elsewhere in the Etudes Perahia once more reveals one of the truly sovereign techniques and poetic impulses of our time. Sony’s flip-box presentation takes some getting used to and admirers of their great artist may wonder at the exclusion of 21 of the 24 Preludes. But the remastered sound is gloriously true to Perahia’s recognisable sonority. This is the Chopin issue par excellence, not just for 2010 but for all time.