For a pianist celebrating 40 years of recording – first for CBS Masterworks and then for its successor Sony Classical – Murray Perahia has a slightly ambivalent attitude to the recording process. ‘It’s a difficult subject because I have to balance it with performing and basically I think of myself as a performing artist, not a recording artist as such. But recording has a special challenge to me in that I see an idealised version of the piece – of course it varies every year and I’m a different person, so to speak, every year. I have an idealised version of the piece in my mind and I want to get that through. And so it’s a challenge, I have to work at it, I have to think about it, crystallise it in a way that you don’t do for a performance. In a performance you just spontaneously sing it, but for a recording – because it’s going to last for a few years and because it sort of encapsulates your ideas about the music – I spend a lot of time deciding how this phrase goes, how that phrase goes in a more generalised way.’ And, like a good many other artists, he admits to rarely listening to his own recordings (‘I’m a different person once the recording is made’), but he clearly has a fondness for his disc of the Bach Goldberg Variations (‘it came at a time when I crystallised my ideas’).
The Perahia discography – captured on 73 discs, now gathered together by Sony Classical in a handsome set – has a number of key areas of focus. Inevitably the ‘three greats’ are there – Bach, Mozart and Beethoven – but then there are other passions, such as Chopin and Schumann. ‘I deeply love Mozart’s music and I’m always listening to it and studying it. It’s a fascination for me – also the operas which I think is the source of the music. But just the genius, the contrapuntal genius, the mastery of the form, the subtle psychological understanding that he has of people and of all different kinds of people, and the love that comes very clearly through the music.
‘The Mozart concerto cycle happened because I came to music through chamber music, not so much the solo repertoire. I was doing a lot of chamber music in the States and in summer camps like Marlboro and Blue Hill before that. I was fascinated with the chamber music – and I gradually thought of doing the Mozart concertos as a chamber music experience involving the orchestra, asking their ideas on phrasing and things like that, involving the wind players, because there are a lot of wind solos, and somehow making it an exalted chambermusic experience. And so my relationship with the English Chamber Orchestra developed and it became a regular feature to do, let’s say, a tour every year for six weeks or so. And then we started doing all the Mozart concertos…’
‘I had such a passion for Schumann, especially when I was young. There’s just something in the music – a yearning’
Beethoven brought Perahia an early Gramophone Award for the disc of the Third and Fourth Piano Concertos in 1986 and Beethoven continues to occupy a central position in Perahia’s life, not just as pianist (he joined the Vienna Philharmonic and Bernard Haitink at the 2012 Proms), but also as scholar: Perahia is working on a new edition of the piano sonatas. ‘What one sees, working on each Beethoven sonata, is what a different world each one is – and there are 32 of them! He has an emotional message with each one that’s different, and each says something novel and from the heart. He gave us that famous quote, “From the heart may it go to the heart”. The sonatas speak so much to the emotions that we experience throughout our lives – our different interests, whether it be love interests, whether it be brotherhood, whether it be looking for God, spirituality; all of the cares that man has, they are reflected in these sonatas.’
In the early 1990s Perahia went through an experience that must be every pianist’s worse nightmare: he had serious problems with one of his hands and had to withdraw from public performance. But the time was not wasted and he immersed himself in a study of the music of JS Bach. ‘The idea of Bach being an intellectual composer is something that’s only one part of him. He was a deeply emotional, deeply religious man. His Bible, which I think should be printed, had many annotations. He wrote constantly in the Bible – and these annotations tell us about the way he thought about these very important texts. So I think that Bach divorced from his thoughts, from his preoccupations with theology, is not real Bach.’
The first composer Perahia recorded was Robert Schumann, and his music runs like a thread throughout Perahia’s multifaceted career as soloist, accompanist (a word Perahia doesn’t have a problem with) and concerto soloist. It was through song that Perahia came to much of Schumann’s music and that in turn led to performances with Peter Pears, Janet Baker and Dietrich FischerDieskau. But where did Perahia’s love for Schumann originate? ‘He does speak very much to me. I had such a passion for Schumann, especially when I was young and started recording. There’s just something in the music – a yearning. I never see Schumann standing upright, I see him leaning, always longing for something. I have read most of his writings on music which I found wonderful, full of enthusiasm and idealism, and very moving. Strangely enough a lot of musicians don’t like Schumann’s writings – Toscanini disliked them because he found them sentimental – but I find them very touching. I love some of the things he says. He recalls one great musician mistaking a piece of Bach for a mazurka of Chopin, which he takes as a sign of his greatness. I love that because it’s all music! You know, in the end, there’s no intellectual rubbish.’
Nowadays, Perahia enjoys a close relationship with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and continues to relish working with two great conductors who are clearly on exactly the same wavelength as him, Claudio Abbado and Bernard Haitink. And asked what advice he’d give a youngster, just starting out, he articulates what must be as close to his own musical philosophy as is possible: ‘One thing I would say is that you have to understand where the music comes from. You have to understand the counterpoint, the harmony, the things that the composer studied. I feel that that’s very important. When we lose that and concentrate just on performing, it becomes hollow. It doesn’t have a source from inside.
‘The other is to keep your love of music alive because the love is the fuel that drives everything forward. It’s a lot of work, playing the piano or playing the violin, and there’s a lot of drudgery involved. And if you don’t have love as your kind of motor, then it becomes fruitless. So I would say, keep the love of music by listening to it, by sightreading, by making music your life. I don’t think you can choose music, you can’t say, “Maybe I’ll be a pianist”. Unless it chooses you, you have no chance.’
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