Masterclass with Murray Perahia (Feb. 22, Vancouver School of Music)

The Vancouver Recital Society is well-known for the amazing work it has done bringing wonderfully talented musicians to Vancouver. The acclaimed pianist Murray Perahia, who is playing this concert at the Chan Centre on February 23, did a superlative masterclass with three very young Vancouver pianists (one said his age was 14, and the others must be about the same age). The tickets to attend were an exceedingly reasonable $10–perhaps the best money I have spent all year to hear so much talent in such an intimate venue (Pyatt Hall). 

I won’t focus on the three young pianists, as they are minors, except to say that all three seemed humble and appreciative, but were able to put aside any fears and perform their pieces very well indeed, and respond to suggestions and discussions agreeably and readily. 

The first piece was Chopin’s BALLADE NO. 4 IN F MINOR, OP. 52. I’ve attached a beautiful performance by Zimerman here.

What was most interesting to me is how thoughtful and considered Perahia is about understanding the composer’s intentions. He said that Chopin had written this piece near the end of his life, when he was likely full of disappointments. Perahia pointed out a passage, saying this sounded like pristine and chaste love, but then a while later, it is love that is full of ecstasy. Then, later, the crashing fury. Perahia quoted a teacher who had called this passage “the nearest thing to a murder in music”. 

Perahia urged this young pianist to improvise more in his daily practice, and to play the piece as if improvising. Perahia emphasized throughout the afternoon that it was necessary to study harmony, theory, and counterpoint in order to get inside the mind of the composer. He urged the musicians to think in terms of phrases, not note-by-note. 

The next pianist played Mozart Sonata in A minor, K 310 (version below is performed by Sviatoslav Richter).

I am much more accustomed to Mozart as a somewhat light composer of pieces that skip along on air. This sonata is most definitely not like that. I was unaware of its history, but Perahia explained to us that this piece was written after the untimely death of Mozart’s mother (a particularly sad event, as I later read, because Mozart’s father blamed Mozart for it).

Perahia pointed out the crushing sorrow, the querulous questioning of God, the lack of understanding, but ultimately the acceptance that God had ordained this event. Perahia pointed out that the classical composers Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and of course Bach, were all religious, and he wanted the pianist to remember this when playing (Perahia did say that “age 14” was probably too young to understand this point). He noted that the first movement is in “Allegro maestoso” (literally happy majestic, and almost a contradiction in terms). 

As he said in other pieces, Perahia urged the pianists, who were all metronome-trained and precise rhythm-keepers, to loosen up and not follow the stated beats rigidly. I know this is an extremely difficult point, particularly for young pianists who want to follow the rules properly. 

The third pianist played two movements of a Schubert piece. Unfortunately, if the title was stated, I did not catch it (it’s in a blue book, if that helps). The first starts with crashing sound and fury, and the second is an adagio.

Thanks to a comment below from the first pianist who played Chopin, this piece has been identified as Fantasie in C major, Op. 15 (D. 760) (the Wanderer Fantasy, about which Schubert famously said, “The devil may play it.”)

Here is Murray Perahia playing the entire piece, in four movements.

[Old text: My collaborator, who did not attend, suggests this may have been an impromptu. So I am not sure what piece it is, but here is Murray Perahia himself playing Schubert’s Impromptus.]

As with the other two pianists, Perahia worked with her to help her incorporate more specific feeling into her work, and give her the permission to depart from strict time. If there was a backstory to this piece, I missed it. But I was enthralled by the beauty of various passages, and I could see her improve her performance before my eyes.

Perahia gave the audience a chance to ask questions, but perhaps we were all too stunned to do that. In my opinion, a masterclass is in some ways more enjoyable than a concert, as we get to hear why the musician makes certain choices, how the musician interprets the piece and various of its passages, what the piece means in the oeuvre of the composer’s work, and so forth. We get some opportunity for this aspect of performance with the pre-concert talks provided in some cases, and I think there is a good case to make such conversations part of a regular concert. It’s true that the intimate venue (I was seated perhaps 10 feet away from the piano) really helps make this work. 

Perahia is known for his interest in music education, and he generously demonstrated his skill in this area for all of our benefit. The general principle of adhering to the notes in the score while freely playing the spirit of the piece is applicable to many aspects of life. 

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