A Tale of Two Hammerklaviers

David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, NY; May 8, 2016/Carnegie Hall, NY; May 14, 2016—It’s not often that one hears two performances of Beethoven’s monumental “Hammerklavier” sonata (the classical piano repertoire’s Mt. Everest) in close proximity. But that’s what happened on two consecutive weekends this month, first with Murray Perahia at Lincoln Center, followed by Yuja Wang in recital at Carnegie Hall.

At 69, Perahia has long been celebrated as one of the central Austro/German repertoire’s standard bearers, who channels virtuosity toward musical ends. By contrast, the 29-year-old Wang is a daredevil who can toss off Rachmaninov concertos and Vladimir Horowitz transcriptions in her sleep. Of course, to make music on Perahia’s rarified level, you need Perahia’s wide-ranging, flexible technique, which still operates at full capacity. Yet behind Wang’s penchant for provocative fashion and keyboard glitz looms a perceptive musician, much of the time.

Each pianist’s “Hammerklaviers” complemented the other. One critic colleague mentioned that Perahia’s first-movement tempo fell under Beethoven’s optimistically  brisk metronome marking. Not that it mattered, for Perahia’s fluid, energetic reading abounded with contrapuntal clarity and an unforced cantabile. One quibble, though: in the sequence of ascending fifths and sixths just before the recapitulation, Perahia opted for the conventional A-natural that Rudolf Serkin, Wilhelm Kempff, and Alfred Brendel favored instead of the controversial “inspired misprint” A-sharp as played by Artur Schnabel, Solomon, Charles Rosen, and Maurizio Pollini.

In contrast, Wang proudly underlined the A-sharps in a less polyphonically organized yet comparably propulsive and more headlong reading. She imbued the Scherzo’s wacky upward F major scale with greater ferocity than Perahia, and gave a more volatile, colorful account of the fourth movement’s introduction. The fugal finale played to both pianists’ technical and musical strengths, as they clarified Beethoven’s relentlessly gnarly textures and unforgiving register leaps without compromise or hesitation. Perhaps Perahia’s jazzily inflected exposition scored over Wang’s relatively generalized execution, yet I was baffled by his curious and rather unsubtle accelerating just before the final measures.

However, Perahia’s experience and musical maturity added up to the more convincing Adagio sostenuto. His basic tempo and heightened left-hand presence anchored the music, reinforcing its inherent classicism in ways that left Wang at the starting gate. Many pianists moon over the right hand’s elaborately decorative writing to the point where the music rambles, as did Wang. Though pretty on the surface, much of Wang’s soft playing lacked definition and specificity.

This particularly hit home throughout the work that closed her first half, Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Here Wang’s overwrought voicings and reverse dynamics were akin to wearing a well-tailored suit inside out. Hammered-out bass lines often obscured important melodies, while extended loud passages (No. 7’s main theme, for example) conveyed little of the music’s textural diversity. Inner counterpoints constantly popped up yet rarely seemed based in harmonic planning or the kind of polyphonic awareness distinguishing Wang’s “Hammerklavier” fugue. However, Wang played the first two Ballades from Brahms’ Op. 10 with directness, simplicity, and intelligently scaled climaxes.

If anything, Perahia’s selection of five late Brahms piano pieces proved more of a revelation. The music’s linear contours emerged in full-fledged conversation, perfectly in keeping with Arthur Rubinstein’s description of these works as “chamber music for piano solo”. What’s more, Perahia projected these qualities in broader brush strokes and on a larger emotional scale that markedly differed from the the transparency and reserve characterizing his studio Brahms recordings. No surprises concerning Perahia’s Haydn Variations in F minor and Mozart A minor Sonata K. 310; they were stylish and perfectly poised as one would expect from this artist.

Perahia played no encores; after such an uplifting “Hammerklavier” perhaps he sensed that none were necessary. But Wang couldn’t leave well enough alone. Her five encores included a beautifully sculpted Schubert/Liszt Gretchen am Spinnrade, a slapdash, phoned-in Gluck/Sgambati Melodie (she used to play this ravishingly), and a souped-up Horowitz Carmen Variations where the pianist tastelessly sped up the coda, baiting the audience. By the time Wang trotted out the garish Mozart/Volodos Turkish Rondo, all traces of Beethoven had vanished into thin air.