Interview: Murray Perahia

Seeking a supreme being? You’ll find him when you listen to Bach or Mozart. So believes the virtuoso musician, Murray Perahia.

By Jessica Duchen, March 5, 2009
Murray Perahia has overcome a career-threatening injury to his thumb and is embarking on a series of concerts in Europe and the USA

Murray Perahia has overcome a career-threatening injury to his thumb and is embarking on a series of concerts in Europe and the USA

It is a long way from the Sephardi synagogues of New York to the platform of London’s Barbican Hall. But this unusual path is only part of the extraordinary journey through life and music taken by Murray Perahia, one of today’s best-loved and most revered pianists.

Born in the United States in 1947, he grew up in an Orthodox Sephardi family whose origins were Greek; his father came from Salonika and moved to the US in 1935. After studies with some of the most significant musicians of the time, including Rudolf Serkin, Mieczyslaw Horszowski and the Budapest String Quartet, Perahia shot to fame when he won the 1972 Leeds Piano Competition.

Long resident in London, he was the recipient of an honorary knighthood in 2004, and his recordings have won innumerable awards (his latest CD of Bach partitas is currently shortlisted for a BBC Music Magazine prize). He is playing the Schumann Piano Concerto at the Barbican on March 15 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, part of the ongoing celebrations for the 80th birthday of the conductor Bernard Haitink.

Now Perahia has also been appointed president of the Jerusalem Music Centre, in which capacity he will spend three extended periods each year in Israel, teaching, fundraising and overseeing the provision of chamber music, masterclasses and more for young musicians throughout the country.

“We’re planning huge programmes for chamber music, orchestral playing, theory and harmony — all of which musicians need in addition to their own studies,” he explains. “So it’s a very big project, but like all projects now we’re financially strapped. I’m going to play a benefit concert for them in the Mann Auditorium [in Tel Aviv], because currently everything is threatened.”

Many of the problems, he adds, stem from losses sustained by the America-Israel Cultural Foundation in the Bernard Madoff scandal. Music, though, remains as important to Israelis as ever: “There’s a lot of talent. It’s wonderful to see that and we have to keep going in order to sustain it,” he says.

Perahia’s influences include such legendary figures as Vladimir Horowitz and Sir Georg Solti, but he says that the greatest impact on his music-making, and indeed his life, has come from a writer and musician whose name is less widely recognised — the analytical theorist Heinrich Schenker, who died in 1935.

“Schenker came from an Orthodox Jewish background,” Perahia says. “His grave is in the Jewish cemetery in Vienna and its inscription is very touching: ‘For him who taught us how to hear music.’ I think that’s exactly right.” For Perahia, Schenker’s philosophies reach far beyond musical analysis. “He talks a lot about God, and what he says makes a lot of sense in terms of music.”

For instance, he explains, Schenker identifies a subconscious component in the way we hear a typical classical piece in sonata form, in which the music’s harmonies undergo a series of explorations and transformations until the original theme returns in its original key, a moment termed the “recapitulation”.

“The harmonic relationships are prolonged in our mind, but we’re not aware of it; we sense this subconsciously, and at that level we understand that the recapitulation isn’t happening until the theme returns to the tonic. The same thing is true in life. For instance, we can be in the middle of a terrible situation and we don’t know where it’s leading, but afterwards, when we see it in retrospect, we know that we’ve resolved something.

“In music you have to know the overall organic plan that’s involved. This has very strong repercussions: it avoids the kind of playing where every note emerges as equally important, which doesn’t work because life isn’t like that. In life and in music, we need to see a bigger picture. Schenker’s ideas about prolongation and linear progressions enable you to see the music from a larger perspective. He tries to see underneath the surface and to reach for an organic whole. This is consistent with the idea of God. Every note is prepared, every note is resolved, every note has a purpose — there’s not an extra note. It’s almost a Talmudic concept…

“To me, Schenker is essentially a very Jewish thinker. Like Freud and Einstein, he is trying to condense something to its essence, and to some extent using Talmudic concepts: every note has to be explained, nothing is left without an understanding.”

There is no question that to Perahia music and spirituality are indivisible. “In music, you need to believe in God,” he says. “Not necessarily in life, which is different and personal; but music is an idealised, perfect world where the dissonances are resolved and where there is a purpose, a direction, all the way through.

“These religious concepts are part of our fundamental dreams. Whether God exists or not, in dreams he exists — and you can’t tell man not to dream about God; it’s impossible. Without taking this into the equation, you don’t comprehend so much of the human spirit. It’s easy to prove that science knows better; but the spirit still needs to believe in a reason for everything, a forthcoming redemption.

“Therefore, to conceive of Bach’s music without conceiving of God, and what God meant to him, is to miss the point. You can’t understand Bach’s thought, or Haydn’s, or Mozart’s, without knowing how they felt about God. We reject this at our peril — you have to study these things in music, you can’t not know what the composer is thinking. You can’t be a composer and not ask those spiritual questions.”

Perahia is the honorary president of the Edward Aldwell Foundation, named in honour of the late American pianist who shared his passion for Schenker. The foundation is “inviting a number of experts to come to Israel and lecture to the kids on Schenkerian analysis.” Perahia is concerned that children in general are not being provided with the most basic level of understanding necessary for the full appreciation of classical music.

“We have an instant gratification culture which is not conducive to understanding great music, or great thoughts for that matter — a slogan culture… I worry about that. Kids should study [music]. If the schools would teach Mozart’s variations on the tune we know as Twinkle Twinkle, the kids would love it. But instead they teach Andrew Lloyd Webber.”

Perhaps ironically, Perahia’s presence on the concert platform is something of a recapitulation in itself. For several years his future was jeopardised by a hand problem that entailed a series of operations on his thumb and resulted in many cancelled concerts. Now, though, he is happy to declare himself fully recovered.

“It’s fine,” he says. “I haven’t had an operation for a long time now and it seems to be resolved.”

With the Barbican concerto to be followed by a recital tour of America, another of Europe and a new recording, Perahia’s recapitulation is taking place in a triumphant fortissimo. But, he says, simply: “It’s nice to be back.”

Murray Perahia performs the Schumann Piano Concerto at the Barbican, London EC2 on March 15 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink. Tel: 020 7638 8891

Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014