September 22, 2009 / 3:03 PM / 10 years ago

Murray Perahia -- When the piano man can't play

BUCHAREST (Reuters Life!) - His fans call classical virtuoso Murray Perahia “the poet of the piano,” but he very nearly became a silent one.

In 1991, at the height of his career, after winning piano competitions, releasing several award-winning recordings and wowing critics and audiences alike, the Bronx-born Perahia cut his right thumb and the resulting infection turned septic.

The pain forced him to give up playing for two years while doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. He resumed his career in 1993, only to give it up again in 2004 when the condition flared up anew.

“It is awful, awful,” Perahia, 62, told Reuters in Bucharest where he conducted — and played piano — in two concerts with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields for an adoring audience during the biennial Enescu Festival in the Romanian capital.

“I’m not a depressive person, but this drove me pretty close to depression, although I didn’t go quite that far,” he added.

“I was very down and frustrated and I couldn’t see my life outside music so I had to do things like editing, studying and I did some teaching during that time, but it was very difficult.”

Now he is back in the concert hall and the recording studio, regaling his legions of listeners with thoughtful, meticulously played but soulful interpretations of Beethoven, Bach and Chopin, plus some conducting when time allows.

Yet there is always the worry in the background, that something not quite understood may strike again.

“I don’t have the answer, I don’t completely know the answer but it’s fine so I just hope it stays fine.”

Here’s what else Perahia had to say about why he steers away from modern music, what deeper knowledge of a piece brings to a performance and why teaching music in Jerusalem doesn’t mean he supports Israeli policy.

Q: You are not enamored of 20th-century music, although early in your career you played Bartok and Britten — plus that foundation stone of modern music, Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire.” Why is that?

A: I was studying more and more these contrapuntal and harmonic things and I became more interested in that and more convinced that music is tonally based, not atonal. That made it difficult to hear and to understand the contemporary music.... I don’t understand it, it’s not for me.

Q: You are a big believer that it is at least as important to understand music theory as it is to be able to play. Why?

A: Because the composers did and not only did they know it, they also taught it. You know Barenreiter, the music publishers, issued Mozart’s instructions (for his music)...and they stopped issuing it because nobody bought it. Imagine — Mozart as teacher and nobody is interested! I don’t see that being a conscientious musician one could ignore the literature composers themselves gave and felt was important. I’m interested in the thing that lasts forever, the thought behind the music.

Q: You were a great friend of the late Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, and from his masterclasses you learned that imitation, at least in music, may be the highest form of flattery, but it’s not good for music. How so?

A: A lot of his students would come for masterclasses and would try to imitate him and I would think this is sad because they’re not themselves and they’re not really carrying on the essence of what he’s teaching, they’re carrying on the superficialities. They don’t really get to their soul, which is what his playing was all about. So it’s the same thing in some ways — performance interests me less than the idea behind it, and the idea behind it should be these great ideas of counterpoint and harmony.

Q: You are Jewish and say you are not observant. Yet your family has a house in Jerusalem, you teach in a music school there and one of your sons served in the Israeli army. Is there a message of support for Israel in this?

A: I don’t agree with everything, with their policies. My feelings come strictly from culture. I feel the Judaeo-Christian culture...can’t exist without input from this way of thinking and one has to cultivate it. I’m not observant... but I do think the roots of music lie in religion and that doesn’t mean you should be religious...I think you can’t get there by just practicing, playing notes and living a hermetic life as a musician. You have to know from where these ideas came.

Q: One more thing — the calm, collected appearance you project on stage — no matter what fears may be bubbling inside — couldn’t be further removed from the showy gesticulations of the Chinese piano superstar Lang Lang who once suggested pianists over 60 — like yourself — no longer have what it takes. Any comment?

A: He’s charming but he wants to appeal to the public and after a point you have to do the work for yourself, not for the public.

(Murray Perahia’s latest recording of Bach Partitas No. 1, 5 & 6 is on Sony Classics 88697326462)

Writing by Michael Roddy, editing by Paul Casciato

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