"I'm not a conductor," Murray Perahia once told an interviewer with typical modesty. "I love to play the piano." Perahia has, nevertheless, been principal guest conductor of the Academy of St Martin's in the Fields for some years and would seem to be perfectly at ease in both roles, if this performance was anything to go by.
The centrepiece was Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto, which he directed from the keyboard. In some respects, this was unostentatious, no-frills Beethoven, in which the music seemed to unfold of its own accord with perfect equanimity. The poetry of Perahia's playing, however, together with the richness of the ASMF strings and wind, lent the Adagio a depth of meaning prophetic of mature Beethoven. Elsewhere, there was much of the clarity that we find in Perahia's Bach, in the counterpoint of the first movement cadenza above all.
If there was a flaw in the evening, it lay in the choice of the remaining material. The curtain-raiser, directed in true ASMF fashion by its leader, Kenneth Sillito, was Ferdinand Ries's overture to Liska oder die Hexe von Gyllensteen. After the interval, Perahia conducted Joseph Joachim's orchestration of Schubert's Grand Duo, originally for piano duet. Neither work is a masterpiece.
Liska has points in common with the overtures to Weber's Oberon and Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor, but lacks the innate charm and melodic attractiveness of either. Joachim's brass-heavy version of the Grand Duo has a solidity, meanwhile, that pulls against the brilliance of Schubert's original. You couldn't fault the performance: Perahia's conducting was a model of grace, tension and energy. But he didn't make the case for it, and I, for one, was left wondering what drew him to it in the first place.
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