Murray Perahia: an unchallenged performer of Mozart’s concertos

This outstanding American pianist was born in 1947 in New York City. His parents were ancestors of Spanish Jews. His father came to the USA from Greece. Murray’s mother tongue was Sephardic, or Ladino.

Murray started playing the piano at the age of 4. His teacher did not trouble him with technical exercises, but rather laid emphasis on ear training and music theory. His father, a tailor by trade, but ardent music lover at that, would often take his son to the performances staged at the Metropolitan Opera House. The next day, the little Murray would sing arias stuck in his memory and try to pick them out on the piano. Besides, he would eagerly pick out Spanish tunes that his father loved most.

But in was not until the youthful age of 15 that he embarked on serious piano studies. At 17, he entered the local conservatory, Mannes College. There, he studied keyboard, conducting, and composition under the guidance of a musical long-liver, Mieczysław Horszowski (at the age of 99 /ninety-nine/ he still would give recitals). Horszowski was a bearer of Chopin’s and Beethoven’s pianistic traditions. He was born in Lvov, when the city was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was a pupil of Teodor (Fyodor Osipovich) Leszetycki, who was considered one of the founders of the Russian piano school (among his pupils were, in particular, the director of the Moscow Conservatoire V. I. Safonov and A. N. Scriabin’s mother). In summer, Murray would attend the Marlboro Music School in Vermont, where he took piano lessons from Rudolf Serkin, who was a descendant of Russian Jews and pupil of Richard Robert (who, incidentally, was also Clara Haskil’s teacher). At the same place, Murray learned the art of piano accompaniment for both singers and instrumentalists. His ensemble partners, among others, included the celebrated cellist Pablo Casals.

In 1965, Murray won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in New York. The same year, he took the first place in the Kosciuszko Chopin Competition for young concert artists, and, a year later, he made his Carnegie Hall debut.

After graduating from Mannes College, Perahia worked as R. Serkin’s assistant at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, of which the eminent Polish pianist, pupil of Anton Rubinstein, Josef Hofmann had been one of the originators.

In 1972, he was the first North American to become a winner in the Leeds International Piano Competition in the UK.

In 1981-1989, Perahia worked as co-artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival in the UK. There, he closely cooperated with the festival’s founders, the composer B. Britten and singer P. Pears.

From 1973 on, Perahia undertook what might be called the “work of his life.” Jointly with the English Chamber Orchestra, he started to record all 27 concertos by Mozart. Here, the musicians managed without a conductor. To make the contact easier, the grand piano’s lid is taken off, and the soloist not that conducts, he just becomes united more intimately with the rest of the orchestra. This is where Perahia’s unique talent, as a soloist, as an ensemble player, and, above all, as a Mozart’s music performer, showed in full.

Only few can play Mozart. However, all do. The seeming simplicity of his music misleads an unsophisticated performer. When playing Mozart, many try to show off something – some, their “fine technique,” others, their “originality.” But hardly anyone manages to play Mozart proper. To do it, one requires complete mastery of the instrument, in particular, the utmost evenness of sound, the elastic touch which makes the tone crisp and round at once, and, on the whole, a solicitous attitude to every note written by the Austrian genius. But, above all, Mozart is supposed to evoke the feeling of carelessness and defencelessness at the same time, inherent in him alone. This is where Christ’s call to “become like children” could not have come at a better time.

In 1990, Perahia unhappily injured his right thumb, which caused a hard-to-treat, prolonged and painful inflammation. The musician was deprived of an opportunity to perform for a number of years. Intrinsically, it was for him the same tragedy as for Beethoven had been his deafness. Still, it was not so bad that the inflammation occurred on his finger, and not on his face, otherwise he could have repeated Skriabin’s fate. All in all, Perahia did not die. Neither he lost himself in drinking, nor wrote a “Heiligenstadt testament.” He found his own way of salvation. He turned to J. S. Bach.

Perahia started an in-depth study of the great polyphonist’s compositions. But it was not just the composing technique, or the perfection of Bachian structures, or the cobweb of themes and the magic of chords that turned him on now. Certainly, Bach’s music represents a summit of compositional mastery. But the main thing is that all its merits, blending together, grow into something still greater. Bach was, perhaps, the only composer who managed entirely to portray and perpetuate his faith in music. It is not church music proper, but neither is it secular music. Rather, it is a sounding faith. It was not without reason that the Russian pianist Heinrich Neuhaus wrote: “When I play Bach, I am in harmony with the world.” It is not by chance that Bach was the favourite composer both for the “classic” Mozart, and “romantic” Chopin.

Communing with Bach helped Perahia regain spiritual stability. Medical treatment, too, did its work. Perahia resumed his public performances. Moreover, he presented the audience with a large bouquet of Bach’s compositions, including, the famous “Goldberg Variations.” And his rendition, again, was noted for his own inimitable charm.

In early 21st century, Perahia continued to gladden the public with his brilliant solo performances and attractive new programmes. Also, he would perform in ensembles. His discography was replenished with new recordings, in particular, Chopin’s etudes and Schubert’s late sonatas. Perahia won a number of prestigious awards and prizes, including three Grammy awards. Unfortunately, his finger ailment would make itself felt on and off, due to which the pianist had to cancel his recitals several times.

In 2009, Perahia became president of the Jerusalem Music Centre. In this educational institution, new facets of his talent were revealed, as an administrator and teacher. Let us wish this remarkable pianist and devotee of music good health and further creative accomplishments!

In one of his interviews, Perahia said the following: “Music represents an ideal world where all dissonances resolve, where all modulations – that are journeys – return home, and where surprise and stability coexist.”

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