Monday, 13 October 2008

An Interview with Murray Perahia

MURRAY PERAHIA will perform a recital at the Singapore Sun Festival 2008 on 24 October at Esplanade Concert Hall. An edited version of this interview article which I wrote appeared in The Straits Times on 11 October 2008.

The celebrated American pianist Murray Perahia, 61, may be said to only perform music which the great Arthur Schnabel described as being “better than they can be performed’. As if to prove that point, his recital on 24 October at the Singapore Sun Festival features Bach’s Partita No.1, Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata and a generous selection of Chopin, while his last recital here in 2002 gave airings to late Beethoven and Schubert sonatas.

In actual fact, Perahia plays and studies far more music than his concert listings and discography suggest. “Music that I don’t perform in recitals forms the bulk of the music I play,” he advised in a telephone interview from his London residence, and lists Fauré’s piano music, Bach Preludes and Fugues and Gershwin Preludes as music he has recently studied. “Just don’t expect me to be caught dead playing Rhapsody in Blue in concert!” he joked.

Bach is Perahia’s latest passion. “Bach wasn’t an active part of my repertoire until my thumb infection,” referring to his affliction that threatened to end his performing career. “In the years away from performing, I spent much time studying Bach, his keyboard music, violin works, choral music including cantatas, and these provided me lots of solace and comfort.”

Since his recovery, he has recorded the complete English Suites, Goldberg Variations and the keyboard concertos with the Academy of St Martins in the Fields, His latest recording of Bach’s Partitas Nos.2, 3 and 4, on the Sony Classical label, and has been very well received. Although he is unlikely to record it, he is currently studying The Art Of The Fugue. “I just love the last and unfinished fugue, it is an extraordinary piece!” he chimed.

Perahia regards recording as a very big challenge, one much different from giving concerts. “In recitals, which are one-off events, one could take risks and experiment. I always try to do something different in concerts. Recordings reflect deeper convictions and are definitive of one’s commitment to a work. There is much responsibility in a recording, as decisions are made that are going to last.”

Having said that, he is proud that his last recording, of earlier Beethoven sonatas (Op.14, 26 and 28), conveys a spirit of spontaneity. “We did it in three days, pretty much in one take, and with not much editing,” he hastened to add. “I hope that I am always growing, and changing opinions on music.”

Collectors of Perahia’s recordings would have noticed from the 1990s an unusual presence of virtuosic works by Liszt, Franck and Rachmaninov, seemingly unfamiliar territory. “That was Horowitz’s influence,” he recalled and quoted the great Russian-American pianist’s aphorism that, “To be more than a virtuoso, one should be a virtuoso first.” Toward this end, he prepared many such works to play for Horowitz including Brahms. “Horowitz originally said he did not like Brahms, but later called me to say that he had changed his mind. Unfortunately, he died two days later,” he recounted.

Music from the 20th century does not figure large in Perahia’s repertoire. “You could say that I am very conservative. I wish I could like music that is not tonally based. Its just that I do not understand the use of free dissonance. After years of thought, dissonance and its resolution are vital for me,” he explained. Perahia did however record works by 20th century composers like Bela Bartok and Michael Tippett. There was even discussion with Benjamin Britten to write him a sonata or piano concerto, but the ailing English composer died too soon in 1976.

Perahia’s rise to fame came in the wake of winning the 1972 Leeds International Piano Competition. For him, competitions are a necessary means to an end. “The reason why they are important is because concert managers have lost their spirit. They aren’t innovative enough, and needed competition wins behind pianists they presented,” he added. He also emphasised that while these were no guarantee for continued success, competitions gave many chances to young and rising pianists.

Would he himself judge younger colleagues in a competition? “No, I can’t hear ten pianists in a row. It’s insanity!” he exclaimed. However he does look forward to hearing young pianists play and then offering them advice. His visit to Singapore includes a masterclass on 25 October with piano students from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. To be able to receive tutelage from a master musician like Murray Perahia, a disciple of Serkin, Horszowski and Horowitz, would be a rare privilege indeed.

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