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Yes to Bach, no to Debussy

The ‘poet of the piano’, Murray Perahia, talks to Igor Toronyi-Lalic about being championed by Horowitz, his rise to fame and how his injury taught him what to play

11 November 2009

12:00 AM

11 November 2009

12:00 AM

The ‘poet of the piano’, Murray Perahia, talks to Igor Toronyi-Lalic about being championed by Horowitz, his rise to fame and how his injury taught him what to play

Murray Perahia was 17 when Vladimir Horowitz, perhaps the finest pianist of the 20th century, knocked on the door of his family house in the Bronx. ‘Could I speak to Mr Perahia?’ the great man said through the door. ‘Hold on, I’ll get my father,’ said Murray. ‘No,’ said the voice. ‘I mean Murray Perahia. It’s Mr Horowitz here.’ Young Murray still had no idea who this visitor was. ‘In my Jewish neighbourhood, everyone was Mr Horowitz,’ he says.

But once he opened the door, the penny dropped. Though Murray hadn’t yet decided to be a pianist, news of his talent had spread across the city and reached the ears of the master. And once Horowitz heard Perahia play he immediately offered to take him on as a student. ‘In the end, actually, it didn’t happen then,’ says Murray. But Horowitz remained interested, and the invitations continued over the years. ‘I kept getting messages, saying, “Mr Horowitz would like you to call him.”’ Thirteen years later, when Perahia was established as one of the world’s finest players himself, he finally returned the call. ‘Horowitz’s first words to me were, “Why didn’t you study with me?” Then he said: “I know: you were too frightened.”’ Perahia pauses. ‘And, you know, he got it right.’

It wasn’t just that Horowitz was an infamous ball-breaker — a ‘tornado unleashed from the Steppes’ as one reviewer described him. It was more that Perahia wasn’t yet Perahia. At 17, he didn’t know whether he wanted to be a solo pianist. Like the young Horowitz before him, he was conducting, composing, performing chamber music, biding his time.

If you’d told him then that he would rise to become one of the world’s great pianists, a sell-out star, an interpreter of the music of Mozart and Bach without equal (one of the many reasons why you’ll be hard pressed to find a step to sit on for his Mozart and Bach concert at the Barbican next week), he would have been amazed.

Unlike most piano prodigies, he also had virtually no repertoire under his belt. ‘That came with Leeds,’ he says, referring to one of the world’s toughest piano competitions, the Leeds International, which he won when he was 25. He was the first north American to win, and such a shoo-in before the event that all the other American contestants withdrew their applications when they heard he was entering. Leeds was Perahia’s turning-point. He secured a recording contract with Sony, gained the attention of Benjamin Britten and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau — whose recitals he began to accompany — and embarked on his extraordinary solo career.


Murray Perahia is 63 now — about the same age as Horowitz was when he first knocked on his door. But there’s still something childlike about Perahia, about his obsessions, his intensity, about how he shirks practical matters, about the way he sits his small, rumpled, boyish frame squarely on the sofa, about the way his face glows when talking about the greats who taught him — Horszowksi, Serkin, Horowitz — or those he collaborated with — Britten, Pears or Casals, with whom he once spent a week in Puerto Rico.

We sit talking in the living room of his detached house in Ealing. Around us is what looks like chaos: CDs, scores, vinyl, paper and music stands. Resting on the arm of one of the well-upholstered floral armchairs is a copy of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. He’s analysing it. For fun? ‘Yeah!’ he says, beaming. ‘It’s just for fun.’

Musical analysis is Perahia’s all-consuming passion. He nurtured this passion by necessity two decades ago. In 1990 an innocuous cut on his thumb became infected, swelled up and forced Perahia to quit the piano. A few years later a bone spur was surgically removed from his hand. Because antibiotics had no effect, he turned to Bach, and for the three years it took his hand finally to heal, he sat in his armchair poring over scores. When he recovered, he recorded what became a staggering, award-winning performance of the Goldberg Variations. Like all the best performers, he’d transformed his difficulties into great art.

But for a suffering musician, Perahia is pretty jolly. He shows me his thumb. ‘It was this bit,’ he says, pointing and laughing in mock frustration. ‘Just this little bit! And even now I don’t bend it.’ He has flare-ups; the last time was two years ago. It knocked out the first few concerts of his 2008 tour. ‘I just hope it doesn’t flare up any more. That’s all I can do,’ he says stoically. Some pianists insure their hands, I say. ‘I don’t,’ he says quickly, wincing. Would you even be covered for something like this? ‘I don’t know.’ Wince.

It was while waiting to heal that he discovered not just Bach but also the ideas of the musical theorist Heinrich Schenker. ‘I realised that these ideas were much more important than practising every day,’ he explains. Schenker thought that the root of all music was in its tonality; that the ebb and flow of harmonies, the way they could create emotional tension and release, was the most important element of any piece. This idea, from then on, dictated how Perahia played and what he played: yes to Bach, Chopin and Brahms, no to Debussy and much of the 20th century.

To hear Perahia playing, however, is not to hear an academic theory being given musical flesh; rather, it is to experience the sweetest and most effortless sort of lyricism imaginable. He’s known to fans as the ‘poet of the piano’, and no wonder. But then Schenker wasn’t his first love. At the very core of Murray Perahia’s playing, I think it’s possible to detect his first great inspiration — Italian opera. He caught the bug before he had even begun playing the piano, aged, he says, three and a half.

How did he discover opera at three? ‘My father took me every Saturday night because my mother was bored by it.’ After each opera, the tiny Perahia would discuss with his father and his father’s friends what he thought about the works. It set up a lifelong love of song and the singing line. ‘I like to think in long phrases,’ he says, meaning that he tries to ignore technical matters — ‘mechanics’ he calls them — or scales — ‘which I rarely do’ — and focuses instead on the big musical picture, the sweep and conception.

One pianist who exemplified this looser, braver, more expansive style of playing was Alfred Cortot (1877-1962), who Perahia began to champion vigorously a few years ago. Cortot is a strange bedfellow for Perahia. Perahia is a devout Jew whose faith has led him to embrace Israel. he has a home in Tel Aviv, he’s become president of the Jerusalem Music Centre, and his son joined the Israeli military. Alfred Cortot, on the other hand, wasn’t just a Nazi sympathiser; he was a minister in the Vichy regime. ‘He was a bad guy,’ admits Perahia with an audibly heavy heart, ‘I do have a difficulty [with him]. Nevertheless I think his teaching is valuable.’ As Perahia has explained elsewhere: ‘Cortot looks at music in relation to literature and to life. And this is, in a way, a dying thing. It is rare to find an exponent like Cortot.’ It’s Perahia’s way too — which is why he has looked beyond Cortot’s anti-semitism to his musicality, and produced and edited Cortot’s recently discovered master classes.

On the subject of Israel, he is circumspect: ‘For people to mouth off about someth
ing that they know very little about is something I find unpleasant,’ he says. ‘Nevertheless, Israel needs to exist for the Jewish people and I will try to strengthen aspects of it… that I think need strengthening. But it doesn’t imply a political viewpoint.’

And what does he think of using music to attempt political reconciliation, like Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra? ‘I’m not against it,’ he says. ‘And you can try. But history warns us that people can be close to music and not be close to people.’

We return briefly to his illness, those years sitting in that chair. Did he ever give up hope? Did he ever think that he might never be able to fulfil, or put into practice, all the ideas that were buzzing through his mind? ‘That was certainly a thought, but mainly I tried just to ignore it,’ he says, regaining his good cheer. ‘I thought, I love music so much — I have to be with music and I’m going to pretend I don’t have a difficulty. I’ll just do what I can. I needed to be a musician no matter what I did.’

Murray Perahia performs with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields at the Barbican on 17 November.


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