Guest review by Magdalena Marszalek


J.S. Bach – French Suite in E, BWV 817

Schubert – Impromptus, D 935

Mozart – Rondo in a, KV 511

Beethoven – Sonata no. 32 in c, op. 111


Murray Perahia, piano

Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

On June 18 Amsterdam was hit by a heat wave that brought everyone out into the parks, to enjoy the summery day, the sun shining in a perfect, cloudless sky. For me, it was a prelude to an evening concert in the Concertgebouw, which concluded the 2016/2017 Meesterpianisten (Master pianist) season. And what a cherry on the top that was! Maestro Murray Perahia presented a wonderful program consisting of Bach’s Sixth French Suite in E major, followed by Impromptus by Schubert (op. posth. 142) and Mozart’s Rondo in a minor K. 511, the evening closing with Beethoven’s last Sonata in c minor, op. 111.

The artist briskly descended the famous Concertgebouw steps to warm applause but, completely focused on the piano, immediately started with the music. From the very first notes I could not stop wondering how such a mature musician could play with such freshness, youthfulness and curiosity. “Jeunesse” was the word that immediately came to mind, while listening to Perahia cruising gently through the movements of the suite. The  clue that this was in fact not a 20-year-old piano enthusiast genuinely having much fun and pleasure at the keyboard was his deep understanding and connection with the instrument. This is a very intimate relationship, one that can only be built over many years….. It was proven that evening three more times, because the friendship that Murray Perahia developed with the piano allowed him a marvellous command of sound and colour, his touch adjusting to suit each piece’s mood and period, light and shade.

His Bach was clear, but not crystalline. Instead of bright crystals falling from the keyboard, I could hear gleaming pearls that fitted perfectly with the sublime elegance of the Bach’s writing. A thundering ovation allowed the artist catch a breath and he came back with the Impromptus by Schubert. The party continued: of course, the joy in the playing was toned down, giving space for other, deeper emotions. The first Impromptu in f minor was so unbelievably cantabile, I am almost certain that no one can make the piano sings in the way Murray Perahia does. The second he played majestically, with much grace, showcasing the full dynamic range of the Steinway grand, from the most sublime, yet somehow bold and confident pianissimos to powerful, full-bodied, but not ostentatious fortissimos. In the following Impromptu, an Andante and Variations, the artist hadthe opportunity to let his boyish nature come forward again. It was incredible how this carefree child-like spirit was released in the music from the fingers of a pianist, who has not only incomparable experience, but also incredibly deep-rooted musical knowledge. One might suspect that too much wisdom could exert weight on the performance, but this was not the case. This 70-year-old Maestro knows how to take care of his inner child and regularly releases it to influence his music. And for sure, he still has it in his fingers, which he demonstrated in impeccably performed fourth Impromptu in f minor.

After the interval, we heard Mozart’s Rondo in a minor. It was the least interesting piece of the evening; however, I let myself sink deeply into the poetic melodic flow, as a preparation for the Beethoven’s final Sonata. I still had in mind the transcendental rendition of Grigory Sokolov, from just over a month ago, so I was curious to hear how Perahia’s version would differ. And indeed, it differed a lot! It was not as pensive and intimate as Sokolov’s, but also not as dramatic as other pianists’ renditions. There was so much light and brightness in Perahia’s playing, which put a unique perspective on this rather dark piece. The mood of the first part of the Sonata varied significantly from all the previous pieces in the programme: the joyful boyishness was gone, and we could see and hear a more serious pianist – serious, but without heaviness. I really appreciated his gestures when he struck the accentuated chords at the beginning of the movement. He flung his arms down violently and with what would look like cheap trick for many showmen in this case evoked an almost a vision of the sound that was attached to his fingers and flung out to the hall, to resonate for a moment before dying. Perahia played the dark and tumultuous movement without a grain of aggression. The recurring motif A♭-C-G was executed clearly, boldly, but not overly dramatic and without overpowering the rest of music, which in my opinion made it ring even stronger. In the second movement, the artist brought back some of the youthful charm, however, this time he did not let it dominate the music. The dark and serious character of the piece was maintained. I loved how he gradually changed the tone of the piano, growing darker and darker, and approching the end, revealing more and more passion. The steadily flourishing expressiveness was evident with the growing force of the pedal. With the trills in high registers, I noticed a beautiful acoustic effect of the concert hall – in addition to the sound produced by the strings one could hear a shy echo of the hammers, which sounded a little like raindrops falling on the roof, enriching the overall experience.

I was grateful to everyone in the audience to allow the last sound to fill the hall and gracefully die before the noisy, very long standing ovation begun. We were not blessed with any encore – but would there be a better way to close such an emotional evening and, in fact, the whole successful Meesterpianisten season?

The London concert scene is alive with pianists and piano-talk at the moment. Hard on the heels of Daniel Barenboim’s acclaimed survey of Schubert’s completed piano sonatas, performed on a brand new bespoke piano with his name emblazoned across on the fall board, comes Murray Perahia, who like Barenboim is afforded the status of a demi-god, though more for purely musical reasons.

I’ve always admired Perahia. My parents took me to hear him in concert when he was a young man and I was a little girl. His discs of Chopin, Bach and Schubert are my go-to recordings for their musical insight, pianistic prowess and lack of ego. Perahia has worked with some of the finest musicians of the 20th century – Vladimir Horowitz, Pablo Casals, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Clifford Curzon – yet he wears his accolades lightly and one has the sense, when hearing him live or on disc, that he always puts the music first. He is the very model of a modest virtuoso.

Read my full review here

At my piano lesson this week, I played the first two and a half pages of the Toccata from J S Bach’s 6th Partita, BWV 830 in E minor. I have not played any Bach to my teacher before; indeed, I have not played any Bach seriously since I was about 14, when I learnt the Prelude & Fugue in D minor BWV 851 from the WTC as part of my Grade 8 repertoire. I’m not sure why Bach dropped off my pianistic radar – it’s not as if I don’t like his music, because I love it, and, if it was up to me, I would programme a whole three hours of continuous Bach for the Radio 3 Breakfast show. To me, there is nothing more enjoyable than waking up to a steaming mug of Redbush tea, a grey Burmese cat purring by my head, and a Bach Cantata or one of the Brandenburgs, or any of the keyboard music playing quietly on the radio at my bedside. Sadly, Rob Cowan, the most regular presenter of the show, favours lively orchestral music to open the show at 7am, and when I switch from argumental John Humphries on Radio 4, I often find my ears assaulted by Viennese ‘oom-pah’ music or some fussy, overblown Wagner.  (By the way, I am sure I am not alone in finding John Humphries’ recent malapropism “Peasants and phartridges” hilarious; the best part was hearing James Naughtie snorting audibly on the radio and then the pair of them dissolving into silent giggles – a case of what a friend of mine calls “laughing in church”. A great radio moment.)

Part of my revisiting of the music of Bach came about because I have recently taught two of his keyboard pieces to a couple of my older students. I did one of the Small Preludes with a student in the summer term, encouraging her to overcome her timidity and play it with a sweeping grandeur, as if she were seated at the great organ of a great Baroque church of Mitteleuropa (another of Fran’s famous “visualisations”!).  And this term Bella, who is my most advanced student, has learnt a simplified version of the first Prelude of the WTC (simplified only in that the semiquavers have been replaced with quavers and the closing phrase has been shortened), a piece she plays with wonderful colour and texture, a piece which she clearly loves. (She is opening my Christmas concert with it next weekend). Working on this piece, alongside Debussy’s Prelude from Pour le Piano, a piece which draws many influences from the Grand-daddy of them all, reminded me of how much I like the architecture of Bach’s music, his voices, and textures. It’s incredibly satisfying music to play, and requires a high degree of cerebral input, which appeals to the ‘intellectual pianist’.

A brief aside – I am no Bach purist, and will happily listen to his keyboard music played on harpsichord, organ or concert Steinway. To me, Bach was a revolutionary and an innovator: I am fairly certain he would have loved to have been able to compose for the modern piano, fully utilising all its capabilities.

The Toccata from the Partita No. 6 has a grandiose introductory section, the arpeggiated and dotted figures of the opening bar setting the tone, and style (here is another opportunity to imagine one is playing a great organ in another great Baroque church of Mitteleuropa!) before a shift in mood into a tightly-constructed three-part Fugue. Although called a Toccata (from the Italian “toccare“, to touch, and featuring lightly-fingered, fast-moving, virtuosic passages or sections to demonstrate the player’s dexterity: the third piece from Debussy’s ‘Pour le Piano’ suite is a fibrillating Toccata which requires immense fleetness of touch – I haven’t attempted it yet….), this is really a ‘Toccata and Fugue’ in the manner of the (in)famous, D-minor Toccata and Fugue. The introductory material is recapitulated at the close of the piece: the middle section is all fugue.

I played as far as bar 34, just after the subject and counter-subject of the Fugue are heard for the first time; this is all I have learnt so far (and I know this piece is going to be a long and satisfying learning process). My teacher complimented me on my playing, my phrasing and ability to highlight the ‘voices’ (I have never been keen on “monochrome” Bach-playing). We did some work on the opening measures, and then she turned to me and said “Can you explain the structure of a Fugue to me?” – and for a moment I was a 12 year old again, back in Rickmansworth, with my previous teacher, Mrs Murdoch, one of the “48” open on the music rack in front of me, a diagram of the construction of a fugue pencilled-in at the top of the page, which looked something like this:

Fugue Subject__________________________________________



_______________Free Counterpoint_________________________

I managed to prevent myself from woffling about subjects, counter-subjects, stretto and suchlike to my current teacher, and admitted that I had not had to study a Bach fugue since A-level music, over 25 years ago. But as I spoke the various elements that make up the fugue in the Toccata from the BWV 830 seemed to spring out of the music before me, and as Penny asked me to identify the Subject, Answer, Counter-Subject, Codetta and so forth, I found myself playing each example as it appeared. Three pages in, and the music becomes more close-textured, and I was really enjoying this game of “hunt the Fugue”. Meanwhile, Penny was busy writing out my “homework” for me.

On my food blog, I have written about two “deconstructed pies” I recently cooked, where I took the constituent ingredients of two classic pies (steak & kidney and chicken & mushroom), and reconstructed them so that the key elements (filling, pie crust) were obvious and separate. In the same way, my teacher has set me the task of deconstructing Bach’s fugue, identifying the constituent elements and laying them out in such a way (on manuscript paper) so that each one stands alone. By highlighting each element, and writing it out in a different colour, I will be able to fully comprehend the architecture of Bach’s fugue, down to the tiniest detail, and will, I hope, know the piece intimately before I actually play it – rather like stripping out all the curlicues, traceries, columns and pediments of a great Baroque church of Mitteleuropa to see how it was built.

“I’ll start this on the way home” I thought excitedly as I left my teacher’s home and began my great trek back to south London. With a 90-minute commute in prospect, I could get quite a lot done, but tiredness overtook me by the time I reached Waterloo and I spent most of my homeward journey listening to Murray Perahia’s marvellous recording of the Partitas. In the Toccata, under his fingers, we hear great arches of sound (that Baroque church again), a lulling inner-heartbeat, and a middle section redolent of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, with its fanciful codettas and cadenzas. This is one of the things I love about Perahia’s playing – his ability to highlight all the interior architecture, the harmonies, textures and voices. He does it with Chopin too, reminding us that Fred’s music is not just about “laahvely melodies”.

Meanwhile, as I traversed the London Transport system and considered the notes my teacher had made for me to set me on the task of mapping Bach’s landscape, with the different elements of the fugue highlighted in different colours, it occurred to me that my map of the fugue might not be so different from the London Tube map – coloured lines converging and veering off again, each with a distinct place, and role, in the construction of the whole. Just a thought….

I’m off to buy coloured pencils and a big pad of manuscript paper: I’ve got homework to do!

Explanation of a Fugue

Postscript – a note on Bach’s ornamentation:

When I played the opening measures of the Fugue for my teacher, I played “old school” mordents, the decoration beginning ON the note. This is how I was taught to play such decorations when I first encountered Bach, way back when…..  Modern scholarship (within my pianistic lifetime) suggests that a mordent should begin on the note ABOVE (thus, in the example given here, the decoration starts not on E but on F-sharp), thus creating some wonderfully crunchy harmonies and moments of tension.


Bach’s Ornament Table