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Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, May 2009

There are several ways to approach these performances: simply as representations of a Beethoven concerto cycle given in 1988 by a highly talented pianist and conductor; as an early run-through for Perahia’s later recording of the concertos with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw, another superb combination of music director and an orchestra sensitized to his direction; as post-modern Beethoven in which individual features are minimized compared to great performances of the past; or as visual imagery allied to great music as a complete theatrical experience. Each of them is valid, and each of them can give the viewer/listener a specific spin on its overall impact.

Taken at face value, what one sees and hears are splendid performances, flawlessly executed and artistically synchronized between soloist and orchestra. Perahia, the prize pupil of Mieczyslaw Horszowski, shares with his mentor a beautiful tone and patrician touch. As an interpreter, he clearly gets involved in both the structural elements and emotional content of the music, but as a post-modernist who is not necessarily historically informed, he imbues the music with poetic sensitivity and drama without indulging in any really idiosyncratic touches. This certainly brings out the structure of the concertos to a great degree. Watching Perahia at the keyboard, there are two things that strike you. One is that, unlike Cziffra or Rubinstein, who almost made piano-playing look easy, one can see every iota of effort Perahia puts into these performances. Of course, by “effort” I mean not strain or tension but a tremendous concentration of the whole body and psyche through his fingers. He also makes many sad and pained faces, which I find distracting, but of course this is partly the fault of a cameraman who apparently wished to catch every “sensitive” moment. I am not impressed with watery-eyed ascetics, an aversion I adopted back in the 1960s from watching a particular British pianist whose stock-in-trade included sobbing and grimacing while he played. Fortunately, one can close one’s eyes and simply listen to Perahia, and in doing so discover performances that are detailed, shapely, and dramatic. Marriner has trained his orchestra not only to support but to respond to the pianist’s notions in a way that is simply delightful. The Academy of St. Martin orchestra spreads its members across the stage well, creating a balance of sections that was for many years nonpareil in the field of chamber orchestra playing. I admit I was also surprised by how many women are in the orchestra, not just the violins where you might expect them, but also in the violas, cellos, flutes, oboes, and horns—a good one-third of the orchestra, in fact.

Rhythmic elasticity is present, if in smaller doses than in the salad days of Rossi, Kleiber, or Giulini, yet meticulously attuned to every bounce and swagger of the pianist’s interpretations. Comparing this set to my two favorites, Schnabel with Malcolm Sargent and Leon Fleisher with George Szell, one can indeed hear a streamlining of style. Sargent provides solid, dramatic accompaniment to one of the most colorful and idiosyncratic of all Beethoven interpreters, while Szell—often damned for his pedantry—is both colorful and elastic as meets the needs of his soloist, whose performances are less individual than those of Schnabel (one of his teachers), yet more detailed, more full of surprises, than those of Perahia. Conversely, Perahia gives the more dramatically convincing performance of the First Concerto than Fleisher does (I always wondered if this had more to do with distant microphone placement than a fault of the pianist), though I’ve never heard a performance of this particular concerto to surpass that of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Giulini on Deutsche Grammophon.

What we have, then, are outstanding performances that will delight in their own right but not necessarily surpass the more imaginative interpreters of the past. The sound is clear and finely detailed, though I was surprised to find that it is in mono. Fans of Perahia and/or Marriner will surely want this and, truth to tell, you cannot go wrong if this is your first exposure to these works. Schnabel and Fleisher may indeed be better listening experiences, but no camera was around to capture their performances. Perahia and Marriner have created here an enduring monument to Beethoven, perhaps a tad streamlined but not featureless, enticing to hear and for the most part enjoyable to watch.

Bruce Surtees
The WholeNote, February 2009

Lately I have had the pleasure of going through several complete sets of Beethoven Piano Concertos by leading pianists such as Barenboim, Zimmerman, Pletnev, and others. Each is special in its own way. Because his unassuming, self effacing demeanour, I really did not have high expectations of a new DVD set played by Murray Perahia (Medici Arts/BBC 3085298, 2 DVDs). However, as I write this I am of the opinion that this set is the best of all…for pianistic command, musicality, beauty of phrasing, and rapport between soloist and conductor. These 1988 performances were transmitted live from The Royal Festival Hall, showcasing the young and deservedly esteemed Perahia with the ever perfect Neville Marriner and his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. None of the other versions generates the sense of forward motion and excited expectancy that often has the listener (figuratively) on the edge of his, or her, chair. This edition easily eclipses the Sony CDs of Perahia’s collaboration with Haitink and the Concertgebouw recorded in 1983–86. When I want to hear any of these concertos this is the set I’ll turn to.

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, February 2009

What a combination! Murray Perahia is a true aristocrat among classical pianists, and Marriner's group is among the finest ensembles in the world. That both soloist and conductor are in complete accord is immediately apparent. The crisp tempi that Sir Neville elicits from his players are just the right seasoning that this thrice-familiar music requires, and makes it hard to decide which of the five concertos fares best—they all do! What's puzzling is the poor audio quality of these 1988 BBC recordings.

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1:41:55 PM, 31 March 2015
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