Academy Of St Martin in the Fields / Perahia, Barbican Hall, London

By Bayan Northcott
Monday 17 March 2003 01:00

The management of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, it seems, has recently taken to seducing eminent soloists from the straight and narrow. Last month, the silvery violinist Joshua Bell was to be heard – or rather, was not to be heard – simply leading the ASMF from the front desk through Mahler's string orchestra arrangement of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet, while that even more poetical pianist, Murray Perahia, is halfway through his second season as the orchestra's principal guest conductor.

Of course, Perahia has been effectively directing concertos from the keyboard for decades, and duly did so again in the first of his current three-concert series at the Barbican, with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 1 in C, Op 15. But he also now regularly wields a baton out front, and with a proficiency that needs no special pleading. Within bars of the opening of Haydn's early concertante Symphony No 7, "Le Midi", the exactitude of his control was manifest in crisp ensemble and a detailed care for distinctions of articulation and dynamics.

Yet the reading proved no mere "style job". On the contrary, it was evident that Perahia's real concern, first to last, was for musical structure and substance, for longer-term phrasing, and the scrupulous "placing" of major harmonic turning points. Old-style authenticists would have blenched at the almost timeless intensity that he and the ASMF's lead violin, Kenneth Sillito, found in the recitative that introduces the pastoral Adagio of "Le Midi"; still more at the romantic ebb and flow of tempo Perahia brought to the Andante cantabile of Mozart's Symphony No 41 in C, K551, the Jupiter, after the interval, encompassing a movement that can sometimes seem to proceed by fits and starts in half a dozen vast paragraphs.

Not that everything was on the ample side. The outer movements of the Jupiter flew past in well-drilled exuberance, while the finale of the Beethoven concerto set off with such pace and snap as almost to turn into a "rondo alla turca". But it was perhaps in the intense give and take between orchestral players and conductor-pianist in Beethoven's discursive opening movement that the sense of familiar music being brought freshly to life on many levels of structure and feeling at once, came over at the fullest.

Not even a tiny slip or two in Perahia's peerless pianism as he embarked on the wonderfully over-the-top cadenza that Beethoven later inserted, almost overturning his own carefully balanced form, could alloy the directness of communication. A capacity audience responded with appropriate warmth.

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