A pianist who's not too good to be true

Murray Perahia plays flawlessly, but he's not just about technique

Classical Music

April 20, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Murray Perahia has been accused of a rare crime in music -- perfection. All pianists should be so lucky.

The charge came in a recent New York Times review of Perahia's recording of the complete Chopin etudes, which ultimately disappointed the writer because there just weren't any flaws. "I didn't know what to make of it," Perahia says from his London home. "The idea that playing can be too good doesn't make sense."

Folks attending Perahia's recital this week for the Shriver Hall Concert Series, his 12th appearance there since 1971, likely won't feel the slightest letdown at hearing someone too good. His program does not include those etudes (maybe we'll get one or two as encores), but the Bach, Beethoven and Schubert he has chosen will still provide plenty of avenues for savoring the pianist's talent.

That ability has been widely recognized for more than 30 years. His gifts were, from the very start of his career, unusual, first recognized in a high-profile way when he won the 1972 Leeds International Piano Competi-tion. As critic Andrew Porter wrote of that victory, "The judges have awarded first prize not to a hard hitter, or to a conventionally 'big' pianist, but to a poet." The "poet" label has stuck, with good reason. The piano world has never really lacked for heavy hitters, the "big" pianists who strike home with sheer digital power and abundant bursts of bravura. Poetic players are never in abundance.

The New York-born Perahia, 56, spent several summers during his post-schooling years at the Marlboro Music School and Festival in Vermont, the almost legendary training ground where budding professionals and veteran artists collaborate in a family-like environment. "When summer ends," as Norman Lebrecht wrote in his book Who Killed Classical Music?, "the young musicians return to the rat race, but something lingers in their style and character. Listen to the artistry of Yo-Yo Ma and Murray Perahia and you can tell that they have passed through Marlboro country, where time and motion stand still for a season and music is made without artificial additives."

Always a student

This no-additives music-making from Perahia no doubt owes something to the exposure he had at Marlboro to such eloquent keyboard artists as Rudolf Serkin and Mieczslaw Horszow-ski and incomparable cellist Pablo Casals. But, just as surely, it's mostly something innate. You can only be taught so much about how to shape a melodic line, to make it sing or sigh; how to vary dynamics or extract myriad tone colors from an instrument.

"The instincts are always at work," Perahia says. "Maybe the heart does know something instinctively, something that can't be put into words. But one's instincts have to be guided by one's intelligence. Mind and heart go together." For this pianist, the study of counterpoint, theory and the other mechanics of music never ends, because he is always seeking more knowledge of exactly how -- and why -- a composition is constructed, why a chord resolves the way it does, why a bass line moves in a particular direction.

That inquisitiveness asserted itself at the age of 17, when Perahia suddenly quit weekly piano lessons, a routine he had known for 11 years. He felt compelled to make his own musical judgments, regardless of the results. "In piano lessons, too often I played the way the teacher wanted," he says. "It was very difficult for me [to go out on my own]. I'm sure it wasn't all easy listening for audiences, either."

Some people found Perahia's playing rather cold at the time, but not for long. He soon knew exactly what he wanted to say through music; those Marlboro sessions and, later, a friendship with Vladimir Horowitz helped lead him to that self-discovery. And what he wanted to say was expressed with a subtlety, an effortless lyricism -- a poetry -- that set him apart from the pack. "It had to come from inside," he says. "To be honest with my emotions seemed more important than being expressive; one can fake expression."

Setting standards

It's impossible to fake the artistic insight that characterizes Perahia's work. Over the decades, he has applied that vision primarily to a select part of the keyboard literature -- Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and, outside the German school, Chopin. He has rarely dabbled in contemporary music. "I don't know very much of it," he admits. "I am so involved in tonal procedures and questions, so rooted in the tonal system. It is not easy for me to hear a piece by [Pierre] Boulez and say what's going on in it."

Perahia's affinity for Mozart has been documented with particular warmth and clarity in his recordings of all the piano concertos; he conducted the English Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard in these revelatory, benchmark performances. His survey of the Beethoven concertos is no less admired. And so it goes through his discography.

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