Press Reviews

Roger Nichols - Chopin Nocturnes

Sleeve note -  Perlemuter : Chopin Nocturnes


Not long ago an authoritative voice in the British musical world wrote Perlemuter off as a merely modish phenomenon. This, I take it, meant that his playing could not be expected to stand the test of time – which may seem a curious judgement on a pianist who has been performing to enthusiastic audiences for over 60 years. But in fact there have been dissenting voices from the time of Perlemuter's first successes and it may be that his unwillingness (or inability) to drive down the middle of the musical road is what makes him such a fascinating pianist – or an irritating one if he happens to collide with your own particular brand of modishness.


Perlemuter was born in Poland but came to Paris as a child and entered the Conservatoire there. He studied with Moskowski and Cortot (though he, like all Cortot's pupils, is unable to describe what that study consisted of, other than listening) and in 1919, at the age of 15, gained a First Prize, playing Fauré's Theme and Variations : the composer, as director of the Conservatoire, was the chairman of the jury. The next year he gained the Prix d'Honneur, playing Dukas's Sonata; and once again the composer was among those who awarded him the prize. But on this occasion, as in the previous year, elements of the musical press found fault with his performance. Robert Schmitz, a friend of both Debussy and Ravel, felt Perlemuter's performance lacked colour. To understand this, you have to have heard Schmitz's own playing – colourful at times almost beyond the bounds of reason, but with a tremendous surface vitality. Perlemuter on the other hand has always eschewed surface excitement and his colours are never applied with a heavy hand. When he came to play all Ravel's piano music in two recitals in 1929, the critic of Le Menestrel wrote, «M. Vlado Perlemuter knows how to give the right value either to a low note of great expressive power or to one perched perilously high – he shades them like a touch of pink on a grey background». Perlemuter's playing is certainly not a Dufyesque extravaganza of reds and greens; the tone is unified, so much that a casual hearing can lead to think it uneventful. Its full measure can be grasped only by ears, and minds, that are fully open.


Perlemuter set the seal on his pianistic studies in 1921 by winning the Prix Diemer, for which only first prizewinners over the previous ten years were eligible to compete. An international career lay before him – and at this point he turned almost completely away from the piano and for two years studied fugue counterpoint and (mainly) harmony in order, as he says, to become something more than just a pianist.He feels now it was a waste of time and that he would have been better off spending those years at the keyboard. Perhaps he should be allowed to know best. And yet... One of the great strengths of his playing is his appreciation of structure and of the harmonic character of a passage. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that those arid hours spent on analysing first and second subjects did after all sharpen his awareness in the way the educators hoped for.


In the 60 years of his international career he has seen and heard pianists of every sort and nowhere has the variety been greater than in the playing of Chopin, from Paderewski and Pachmann up to the latest whiz-kid. The composer has tended to be the loser as egos, Parkinson-wise, have grown to fill the spaces created by the modern publicity machine, and the Nocturnes have taken some particularly hard knocks. Behind these pieces some unspecified love interest is often assumed to lurk and the playing accordingly takes on a febrile femininity, swooning beneath the moon in June. In Perlemuter's hands the Nocturnes emerge surprisingly strong, solid, and masculine. If there is a love interest in these pieces it is indeed love, not merely sex or sentimentality. To go back to his Ravel recitals in 1929, the critic of Le Courrier Musical noted the absence of «irrelevant rubato, of exaggerated phrasing and of wayward nuances». Perlemuter's  playing of Chopin is no different. When I commented on the stability of pulse in his performances and asked him whether he felt pianists were in danger of deforming the music by allowing too much rhythmic freedom, he answered with an unqualified «Yes».


One reason why the hasty ear may find Perlemuter less titillating than some of his confrères is that he does not disdain common sense. Rather than strive desperately for the impossible (fodder for the hysteria addicts), he lays his plans with a mature wisdom that tends to operate in the longer term. For example, the so-called «tempo problem» in the C minor Nocturne op. 48 no.1 is no problem if you have got a spacious, steady opening tempo as he does – though his control of texture when the triplets enter is, admittedly, more a question of superlative technique than of common sense; but the beautifully unhurried fioriture in op. 15 no.2 are decidedly the result of a decision that at first seems to fly in the face of beauty.


Finally, Perlemuter lays bare the lie that these Nocturnes are for the right hand plus accompaniment. Chopin, we know, amazed his audiences with the dexterity (if that is the right word) of his left hand. Perlemuter, too, allows the left hand an equal share – it is after all, he says, the «support» of the right. His feeling for the harmonic character of a passage frequently shows itself through the accentuations in the left hand, stressing what is new and changing, moving smoothly through what may be taken for granted. Altogether it adds up to a sense of proportion ; and from that stems also a sense of humour, to go with the rather unquiet Polish Jewish eye with which both Chopin and Perlemuter view the musical habits of their adopted country and of the world in general.

Copyright Roger Nichols 1984.




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