Looking for the key

For the past few years, Murray Perahia's career has looked as if it was all fingers and thumbs. Now he's back in business and ready to play again. Robert Cowan meets the thinking person's most thoughtful pianist
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The Independent Culture
Situated off a quiet West London street and shielded by foliage, Murray Perahia's house could easily serve as the archetypal symbol for suburban contentment. Inside, heaps of scores, records and CDs rub corners with comfortingly mundane trappings of family life, and all seems well with the world. But four or five years back, things were looking decidedly bleak for the American-born, London-based pianist who celebrated his 50th birthday in April. Perahia had developed serious problems with his right thumb.

"It started as an infection," he tells me candidly, "and so I took a course of antibiotics. The pills seemed to be working, so I stopped taking them. I even started playing again; but two weeks later my thumb swelled up like a balloon. The doctors couldn't find precisely what was wrong. They did exploratory operations which, I think, made things worse. This situation went on for a year, and I couldn't play. Two further exploratories worsened matters even more. But then I had an operation to remove some scar tissue, which helped, and I was able to play again - but not for longer than a year. Soon I was back to square one. It was awful."

A year or so ago, though, Perahia started playing yet again. He went to the United States, where he finally found the right diagnosis - "or at least I think it's the right one," he adds guardedly. "Something about a spur on the bone which had to be dealt with. We got it removed here in London by a very good doctor... It seems fine now."

Perahia's manner is thoughtful, earnest and humble - and you'd never suspect the presence of any physical problems from listening to his most recent CDs. His 1994 Chopin recital won a coveted Gramophone Award, while his latest disc, which couples elegant Handel keyboard Suites with prime- coloured Scarlatti sonatas, boasts more interpretative incident per bar than any of his previous discs. Did he perhaps use the time he spent away from the keyboard to re-think his approach to the instrument?

"In the past, I have too often been a slave to the piano," he admits, "and I find that any time I can have away from it - just conjuring the sounds in my head - is very valuable. It was a period of strengthening."

Perahia took at least some of his strength from the music of JS Bach, whose English Suites he is planning to record during the coming months. "While I was sick, Bach's music always consoled me," he explains. "It stayed with me, I studied it and I am always very close to it. Everything Bach wrote was in the service of God, created with the aim of praising Him - and I find that extremely moving."

Perahia is a fastidious performer but a steadfast enemy of routine - and he hardly ever listens to his own records. "Recording challenges me," he says, "and I'm always keen to do it. With an evening's performance, you do your best; but with a recording, you try to get an idea, a whole vision across. Oh, I know you can't go completely crazy... I mean, get your 'ideal' version down - and perhaps you shouldn't try too hard. You maybe play the piece through once: you think it needs a bit more of this, a little bit more of that, so you do it again... but that doesn't always work. I try to record three complete performances, then I might come back again for some minor editorial 'inserts'."

Perahia's approach to musical language and structure is strongly influenced by the Austro-Jewish music theorist Heinrich Schenker (a pupil of Bruckner and a major influence on the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler). "These writings are a bit like Talmudic thought applied to music," he says smiling, "but they are very difficult and they need time to register, so I was grateful to have that time at my disposal. I feel that Schenker plumbs the very depths of what music is about. When I teach a piece, I will teach it in terms of an analysis, try to explain it in a way that draws attention to the music's structure. It's very often difficult to present Schenker's actual ideas, so I advise students to read books on figured bass - because once they understand the very basics of what music is, then they can get into some of these later views."

Structure, then, is of the essence? "Oh, definitely - it's one of the most important elements of music. But the trouble is that the term 'structure' sounds so academic, and the last thing I would want to be is academic. Structure is something that's inherent in the notes - where they're leading, and where the climax is. It involves the study of harmony and counterpoint. There's no way around it: you need to understand the music's resolution and points of tension."

As a teacher, Perahia considers that any student who seriously intends to study interpretation must himself know what it is to compose - "because, if you don't compose, and you just slavishly follow someone else's writing, you cannot understand the genesis of a work." He cites various great pianists from the past who also wrote music - Paderewski, Rachmaninov, Hofmann, Kempff, Schnabel - "they all knew what it was to create." And what about Perahia himself? "Well, with me, the obvious pieces are the various solo cadenzas that I've composed for Mozart piano concertos - and, yes, I do still occasionally write other things."

My own creative instincts, I observe, would probably surface with a decidedly Schumannesque accent. "That's how I feel inside, too," agrees Perahia, "but I can't dare to compose music in that style! So much modern music is, in a way, divorced from the music one usually plays; and of course the rules are very different, too. The laws that govern, say, Bach or Mozart - in other words, consonance and dissonance - are not the same laws that govern the music of many contemporary composers."

Not that he hasn't ever recorded any modern music; in fact, his record company, Sony, currently has some "in the can". Apparently they were planning a CD to celebrate Perahia's 25 years on the label - "and I suggested that, rather than reissue stuff that had been out before, why not release some of the unissued material that we could never find the right 'coupling' for." So standby for Tippett's Sonata No 1 and the Alban Berg Sonata, as well as some Mozart German Dances.

Murray Perahia does nothing by halves. When he was "into" Handel a year or so ago, he spent months listening to the composer's music - "everything I could lay my hands on, operas, oratorios, not just once, but constantly". And now it's Schumann's turn. "I have been listening to the Scenes from Goethe's Faust, Lieder, symphonies, string quartets - the lot! I also like to read around the music: a biography, perhaps, and the literature of the time, like Jean Paul or ETA Hoffmann."

Perahia's London recital tomorrow will include Schumann's ambitious but discursive F sharp minor Piano Sonata, which he intends to record. "I've been working on it, on and off, for some time now," he says. "I played it in the States a few months ago, dropped it, re-learnt it and played it in Europe. Now I'll have had two weeks off before playing it in London. So I've had all this time away from the piece and with the piece. I've a few recitals planned in which I'll play it, and then I'll record it.

That'll mean I've given myself around a year and a half to prepare it. Even that might not be enough, but it's enough for a start!"n

Perahia plays Handel, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin: tomorrow 7.30pm, RFH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242). His new recording of Handel and Scarlatti is on Sony SK62785