Pianist Perahia's loss was our gain

Music: Time away nursing illness gave gifted player a chance to reflect and refocus.

April 24, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Murray Perahia is getting to be quite an adventurer.

In his recital this afternoon at the Kennedy Center, the celebrated pianist will play one of Beethoven's least-frequently performed piano sonatas: No. 14 in C-sharp Minor (Opus 27, No. 2).

Wait a minute! Isn't that the so-called "Moonlight Sonata," whose dreamy opening movement is among the most familiar pieces ever written?

"But how often in 15 years of reviewing have you heard it?" Perahia asks.

Incredibly enough, the answer seems to be only twice.

"We think the `Moonlight' is the piece that's always played, but actually it almost never is -- at least by professionals," he says.

The best-known of the piano sonatas may also be among the least understood.

"The opening movement is usually played much too slowly," he says. "And then there's Beethoven's instructions for the pedal to be depressed during the entire movement, which results in an inappropriately thick sound. And that means making subtle changes with the pedal throughout the movement."

It's good to have Murray Perahia back. Only a few years ago, it seemed that this most thoughtful of our great pianists might never play again. In the early '90s, he seemed to have dropped out of sight. Rumors abounded: He had had a nervous breakdown; he had burned out; he had contracted a mysterious illness; he had injured his hands playing the piano. According to Perahia himself, the truth is a little more mundane.

"It wasn't anything to do with piano playing," says Perahia. "It was a stupid paper cut."

Perahia put out of commission by a piece of paper?

Yes, he says. -- That cut on the all-important thumb led to an infection, which, in turn, caused a bone spur that left the right hand all but incapacitated and in extraordinary, unending pain.

Doctors at a Louisville, Ky., clinic, specializing in bone disorders, were finally able to diagnose the pianist's problem and to perform an operation that completely restored his thumb.

But two good things happened during the illness that forced Perahia to curtail his career for more than four years.

"The first of them is that I was able to spend a lot more time with my wife and my two boys," he says.

The second of them is suggested by the presence of one of Bach's "English" Suites on this afternoon's program. Since returning to concert life two years ago, Perahia -- who never played much Bach before he became ill -- has recorded all six of the suites in two extravagantly praised recordings. And he is involved in a long-term project in which he will record almost all of Bach's keyboard works for the Sony Classical label.

"What happened is that when I was ill and couldn't play, I started listening to a lot of Bach," he says. "It began with the keyboard works, some of which I had performed when I was younger, and then I turned to the Passions and Cantatas. I began studying and analyzing them, and it was not long before I began listening to Bach in my head.

"It's music that gave me a great deal of inspiration when I was ill. Now I'm just grateful that I'm able to perform it."

Murray Perahia

Where: Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center, Washington, New Hampshire Avenue and Rock Creek Parkway Northwest, Washington

When: Today at 5 p.m.

Tickets: $15-$55

Call: 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1234

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