Perahia plays Handel and Scarlatti
This is a very fine recording of the piano, and if that seems an oblique comment with which to begin a review of Murray Perahia in Handel and Scarlatti let me justify it as an observation which will, I hope, be widely shared. The sound, after all, is always one’s first impression, and first reactions can be paramount. But whereas one often thinks: well, decent enough (and then adjusts and gets on with listening), this is different. It is so true and such a delight to listen to that I feel resolved for the future to say, why can’t all piano records be as good as this?
In his projection of line, mass and colour Perahia makes intelligent acknowledgment of the fact that none of this is piano music, but when it comes to communicating the forceful effects and the brilliance and readiness of finger for which these two great player-composers were renowned, inhibitions are thrown to the wind. Good! Nothing a pianist does in the “Harmonious Blacksmith” Variations (track 4) in Handel’s E major Suite, or the Air and Variations of the D minor Suite (track 10) could surpass in vivacity and cumulative excitement what the expert harpsichordist commands, and you could say the same of Scarlatti’s D major Sonata, Kk29 (track 19); but Perahia is extraordinarily successful in translating these with the daredevil ‘edge’ they must have. Faster and yet faster! In the Handel (more than in the Scarlatti) his velocity may strike you as overdone; but I do see the sense of it.
It is quite big playing throughout, yet not inflated. I admire the tone of voice: the expression is strong but the manner not overly personal, whether Perahia is being brilliant, lyrical, tender, noble, dashing, or anything else. That seems to me right. And I like very much the way the piano is addressed, with the keys touched rather than struck, and a sense conveyed that the music is coming to us through the tips of the fingers rather than the hammers of the instrument. While producing streams of beautifully moulded and inflected sound Perahia is a wizard at making you forget the percussive nature of the apparatus.
I am not always completely persuaded by the Handel. There are movements – the Presto conclusion of the D minor Suite, for example – where the musical qualities are dependent on instrumental sound, or contrasts of sound, which the piano just can’t convincingly imitate. And in some of the Scarlatti one might have reservations about Perahia’s tendency to idealize, to soften outlines (hard to avoid, given the piano’s capacity for nuance) and to make the bite less incisive. You could of course raise a more fundamental objection and say that I have been constantly begging the question: why do it on the piano at all?
There is no denying the existence of the closest possible connection between this music and the instrument for which Handel and Scarlatti wrote it. If you can’t bear to hear it on anything else this record won’t be for you. But Perahia is an artist, not just a pianist, and if you don’t rule out of court the prospect of these composers transcribed for the piano, he has an experience to offer that is vivid and musically considered at the highest level – and (it seems to me) not at all second-best. The virtuosity is special indeed, and there is not a note that hasn’t been savoured, thought about and placed with affection.'