Murray Perahia is 60 this year. He is not advertising this milestone. In fact, he admits, he is trying to forget it. I know how he feels. One of the most recognisable faces in the classical world, Perahia has changed little since he first came to international prominence by winning the fourth Leeds Piano Competition in 1972. Only slightly fuller in the face and waist than then, he has always been a man of quiet dignity and serious purpose. Tittle-tattle and small talk do not interest him. Neither pleased nor displeased to be interviewed, one senses he would rather be spending the time at the piano. It is the piano that dominates his life. Except there’s something else as well now: the thought that at any time he may never be able to play it again.
Two years ago his thumb problem resurfaced. ‘I thought I’d got over it. It was a return to the nightmare and without any guarantee that it was ever going to get right. No one is still sure what it is. Different doctors gave different diagnoses. Nobody really solved it and in the end it calmed down. Now I’m able to play again and in a way maybe this is borrowed time. I don’t know. Nobody can give me a guarantee that I’m going to be fine. Look here.’ He holds up his hand. ‘It’s in the right thumb. It doesn’t quite extend, though it’s all right. Now it’s fine but it was quite swollen.’
The problem began in 1991. He cut his thumb and it then went septic. ‘I treated it with antibiotics which I didn’t pursue to the end of the course. It then flared up and there was no solving it. Exploratory surgery might have done some harm.’ He was not able to play again until 1993. His return to top form led him in 1995 and 1997 to Gramophone Awards for albums of Chopin Ballades and music by Handel and Scarlatti. A second Grammy followed in 1999 for Bach’s English Suites Nos 1, 3 and 6 (his first had come a decade earlier for a disc of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion). In 2000 came the Goldberg Variations and a Gramophone Award for Best Instrumental Disc. In 2003 Perahia won a third Grammy for his Chopin Etudes as well as another Gramophone Best Instrumental. A year later, the nightmare returned.
When I ask him if the condition physically hurt him at the time, his reply is stark and unequivocal. ‘Very much. Very, very much. Horrible pain. Most of the time. That was what was so disturbing. Almost all of the time. Excruciating pain. But it’s finished now. I didn’t touch the piano. I didn’t touch it. And anyway it doesn’t have anything to do with the piano. It’s mysterious. Somebody said it was the ligaments, somebody said it was the bone. It got a little better gradually but it was still so painful last summer that I was thinking to cancel the whole season. Then I massaged it heavily through the pain and kept at it, day in day out. Now it’s fine with the occasional twinge.’
Perahia was able to resume playing again last September and his first concert in two years was the following month. It attracted rave reviews. ‘Luckily I started very early, at three or four years old, so it all came back very quickly. It’s natural to me.’ Has he had to choose repertoire that accommodates his errant thumb? ‘A little. I’m a little cautious at the moment. I haven’t wanted to go in at the deep end for the past few months.’ So what, I ask innocently, are you currently working on? His answer is, let’s say, unexpected. ‘I’m planning on the Hammerklavier next season.’ His unprepossessing detached house in a quiet, anonymous road, tucked away in the back streets of the London borough of Ealing, seems an unlikely base. But Perahia is notably unstarry. He doesn’t do flash – or, for that matter, fashion. He is dressed in a shirt of uncertain vintage with a discreet floral motif, trousers from an expensively tailored charcoal pin-stripe suit and brown suede loafers. His Spanish housekeeper serves us tea and biscuits in the cluttered sitting room (the dining room is taken up by keyboards). ‘I love England. When I started out, this was where it was all happening. I worked with people like Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Clifford Curzon. It was ideal for me. It was home to me – it is home to me.’ In 2004 he was made an honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire.
Perahia is of Ladino-Jewish descent. ‘Ladino,’ he explains, ‘is the Spanish of the 14th century, the old Spanish of Cervantes. My parents came from Salonika in Greece where there was a big Spanish-Jewish community. My father arrived in New York in 1935. I had an unusual start. He had a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera and when I was three years old he would take me to the opera every Saturday night because my mother was bored by it. And the next day I would sing back most of the opera in fake Italian. I speak Spanish but I don’t speak Italian. So that’s when I started at the age of four with a neighbourhood teacher. We didn’t have a piano at the time, but after a bit she suggested we ought to get one.’
He studied at Mannes College and with his much-revered mentor Mieczysław Horsowski. At the Marlboro summer school in Vermont he worked with its leading light Rudolf Serkin and no less a figure than Casals. ‘I became close to Pablo Casals,’ Perahia states matter-of-factly. ‘He invited me to his home in Puerto Rico. We played chamber music and actually made some recordings – they’re not for sale, they were just for fun. I was 18 or 19. Perhaps he took to me because my origins were Spanish. But I loved his playing. My heart opens to him. He had a great influence on my Bach playing – and we have to remember that no one except for Gould was playing Bach. When I was growing up all the great pianists like Arrau and Curzon were saying no, we shouldn’t play Bach on the piano. That made me ask why. I didn’t think you could become a good pianist without playing Bach.’ With his benchmark recordings of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, he has, I suggest, rarely strayed beyond the standard repertoire. ‘You’re right. I love to play great music. The only part of my repertoire that was fashioned without that in mind was when I was working with Horowitz. We did a lot of virtuoso music because, as he said to me, ‘if you want to be more than a virtuoso, first you have to be a virtuoso’. So we did a lot of Liszt and Rachmaninov.’ He hasn’t, I observe, played much Rachmaninov. ‘I love a lot of his music but it’s not challenging in the same way that Beethoven is challenging. Without going into detail, while the voice-leading of Rachmaninov is beautiful, it’s straightforward. Each note doesn’t have a history which each note in Beethoven and Chopin does. To slave over the pages of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto strikes me as very difficult because I wasn’t brought up with that. I’d have a hard time.’
Two projects consumed him during his enforced absence from the keyboard. The first was the ‘Master Classes of Alfred Cortot’ (Sony S3K89698), recorded live in Paris between 1954-60. ‘The adopted son of Cortot got in touch with me and told me there was this huge reservoir of recordings, something like 30 hours.’ Perahia persuaded Sony, the label with which he has been for his entire career, to issue the recordings as a three-disc set in 2005 with more than three hours of the great French pianist playing and elucidating his ideas on Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin. Many are the only recordings of Cortot in some works. ‘I love Cortot even though I don’t always agree with him. I don’t know whether that amount of freedom is right for Beethoven but it’s very convincing. Certainly we have lost something of that way of playing which I think is important to have.’
The second (ongoing) project is as co-editor of a new edition for publisher Henle of the complete Beethoven sonatas. ‘We’ve already edited something like five or six and will take a further four or five years before completion. It’s very interesting work because it involves studying the original manuscript where possible, studying the first edition and putting together an edition from those. However, it’s not as easy as that because many of the sonatas don’t have manuscripts. Even when they do, there’s something wrong in the manuscript or the first edition and you have to decide what is right. What I’ve come to do a lot is use the sketches because there are sketches for almost every sonata, and you can see the process that Beethoven goes through when you see them. There are a lot of mistakes in the two main editions, the Schenker and the old Henle. So we have to clear up those as well. It’s very difficult work but it kept me sane in the two years that I had my thumb problems. At least I can always do this.’
Perahia’s most recently issued recording, from November 2004, featured Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 28 in A major, Op 101, using his new Henle Urtext Edition, and a performance of the String Quartet No 12 in E flat major, Op 127, in a transcription for string orchestra with Perahia conducting the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, with which he holds the title of principal guest conductor. In June this year he was finally able to return to the studio to record Bach’s Partitas Nos 2 and 3, and Beethoven’s Sonatas Op 14, Nos 1 and 2 and Op 28, the Pastoral. November will see him in the studio once more to record the Fourth Partita and Beethoven’s Op 26 Sonata, all of which will see release during 2008.
It is difficult to comprehend what the loss of a fully functioning mechanism must mean to a musician of Perahia’s distinction. For all our sakes, but much more for his, we can only pray that the torment will not return. Would he consider conducting if the hand went for ever? ‘I could but I wouldn’t want to do it. I am a pianist and I feel that would be a substitute and I don’t want to do substitutes. I’m not a conductor. I do conduct, but it’s because we have a lot of fun with the Academy and I can communicate some musical ideas. But it’s not my profession, my first calling. Also, I love the piano. I love it as an instrument. I love to listen to piano records. I have to touch it to be authentic. I have to!’