Javier Perianes, virtuoso at large

Pianist Javier Perianes. Picture: Contributed
Pianist Javier Perianes. Picture: Contributed
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SPANISH pianist Javier Perianes brings his understated technical and tonal brilliance to Scotland this week.

There’s an interesting Spanish pianist doing the rounds with UK orchestras at the moment. In his native Spain, Javier Perianes has already become something of a celebrity, where besides his high profile as a soloist, he regularly talks about piano music to audiences of around 2 million on the nation’s most popular classical music radio programme.

When he debuted at the Lucerne Festival three years ago, the Neue Luzerner Zeitung described him as “not a virtuoso full of vigour; he is instead a poet at the keyboard”. Last month in London with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, critical reaction was much the same, declaring Perianes “a poetic player with rock-solid technique but no tendency to pummel the piano”.


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Will we feel the same this Thursday when he makes his first visit to Scotland, performing Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No 5 (the “Egyptian”) with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under Matthias Pintscher’s baton, at Glasgow City Halls?

I’m inclined to think he’s well worth catching if the series of recent CDs the 36-year-old has recorded on the Harmonia Mundi label is anything to go by. The latest, out this month, is a beautifully balanced exploration of some of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, placed in context alongside the more substantial Andante con variazioni, the sparkling Rondo capriccioso and the 17 Variations sérieuses, all of which Perianes handles with an immediately distinctive and sensitive touch.

He’s a no-nonsense pianist, favoring honesty and integrity over superficiality and affectation. And that’s not just a comment on the Mendelssohn, which he articulates with a combination of golden ringing tone and analytical directness, softened by subtle and instinctive musicality. In earlier recordings, such as the delicate combination of Chopin and Debussy in Les Sons et les Parfums (also Harmonia Mundi), the evenness and quality of tone production is once again simply exquisite.

It’s as interesting that he’s gone down the Mendelssohn route with this latest recording, as it is to find him debuting in Scotland with such a curiosity as Saint-Saëns’ “Egyptian” concerto. But the minute you start talking to Perianes, you realise you’re speaking to an artist with a mind of his own.

“Of course, as a pianist, I have to have the Beethoven concertos, the Schumann, Brahms 1, and all the rest of the regular repertoire to hand,” he says. “But it is also important that you develop some kind of curiosity: not so much to discover new pieces, because they’re already there; but to find pieces that are not usually played.”

“The first time I listened to the “Egyptian” concerto was like ‘wow, this is special’. Everybody plays the 2nd concerto, but this one, No 5, is quite original.” The clue is in the nickname. Saint-Saëns’ final piano concerto was written while on holiday in 1896 in Luxor, its language distinguished by clear references to Nubian folk song, as well as containing wider Middle-Eastern and Indonesian influences.


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But is he really suggesting that Mendelssohn also ranks among the “curiosities” of the piano repertoire? “The real value for me is trying to show different angles of composers we might already feel familiar with,” he explains.

“With Mendelssohn, we have, of course, the famous Songs Without Words. Everybody knows them. But also on the new CD is the Mendelssohn of the Variations where he is clearly looking back to Beethoven; or the Prelude and Fugue, where he is looking further back to JS Bach. But even then, there’s a lot in this piece where you can hear Beethoven and Brahms, or at the end, looks to Cesar Franck’s famous Prelude, Choral & Fugue. This CD is not about the Songs Without Words; it’s about the different perspectives of an amazing composer.”

Perianes puts his idiosyncratic approach down to being Spanish. “I’m going to use a sentence that the great pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim used last time he was in Spain,” he says. “He said that ‘Spain is a country of individuality’, and I completely agree with him”.

Ironically, he adds, it boils down to serious shortcomings in Spanish education, particularly in relation to the arts. “Sadly, our education system does not consider music, art, philosophy, or literature important. It is not seen as part of the DNA of Spanish education, so there is a big lack of quality in that area.”

“I find that very sad. Yet on the other hand, we have wonderful teachers, wonderful conservatoires and wonderful music schools, 
but it’s not part of the system to provide these kinds of institutions with the best facilities or best instruments to create the best atmosphere for future generations of musicians.”

Perianes’ point, though, is that it hasn’t stopped musicians like him flourishing on the international music scene: people such as Juanjo Mena, current chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; or some of the key principal players in such major orchestras as the Berlin Philharmonic or Royal Concertgebouw. But there’s no sign of “a collective effort” on Spain’s part, he says. “It’s about talented guys going outside Spain to find a job”. In other words, creating their own opportunities.

There has to be a fundamental talent, though, and while that was evident early on in Perianes’ development – he had won several significant piano competitions in Spain and Portugal by the time he was 21 – one of his most public successes was a few years ago when he appeared on a televised masterclass under Barenboim. Watch it on YouTube and you can hear Barenboim sow the seeds of tone production that is now a hallmark of Perianes’ pianism.

Since then, New York’s Carnegie Hall, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and many of the world’s other great concert halls have been witness to it. Now it’s Glasgow’s turn to see what all the fuss is about.

Javier Perianes performs Saint-Saëns’ Fifth Piano Concerto, the “Egyptian” with the BBC SSO on 4 December at the City Halls, Glasgow. The concert will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3

Romances sans parole, is out now on Harmonia Mundi