Pianist Murray Perahia: big talent under a low profile

T is surprising to think that Murray Perahia, one of the most gifted young piano virtuosos of our times, will only now be making a career landmark move -- his Carnegie Hall recital debut (this Friday at 8 p.m.). But then again, Mr. Perahia's career has not been the sort of predictable, razzle-dazzle affair that seems to be so prevalent today. In the decade that he has been in the forefront of respected artists, he has kept a refreshingly low profile. And in conversation with him, one discovers an almost shy but articulate person, who chooses his words well, whose gentleness of speech belies a deep-rooted belief in the musical values he holds most dear.

At the core of those values is one simple thing, stated in his own words: ``The important thing in a career is how not to lose your love of music.'' Later in our talk, he brought up the point again in relation to dealing with the pressures of career-making and career-sustaining: ``This element of loving music is so precious, that one has to do everything one can to keep that alive. Because it can die with all these pressures, tensions, and anxieties about getting things done.''

And Murray Perahia does get things done. He has just finished a complete cycle of Mozart piano concertos for CBS Masterworks, in which he conducts the English Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard. His first recording for the same company was of Schumann's demanding ``Davidsb"undlert"anze'' and the ``Fantasiest"ucke, Op. 12.'' Later on, he offered Chopin (probing, persuasive accounts of the complete Preludes and the Second and Third Piano Sonatas), as well as Beethoven (the Op. 10 No. 3 and the ``Appassionata'') Mendelssohn, Bartok, and Schubert.

But Mr. Perahia does it all in his own good time. And talking to him, one knows that the love of music remains foremost in his thoughts. I first asked him about new repertoire he hoped to learn, and specifically if a Brahms concerto was in the works: ``I actually studied the Brahms [D-minor] with my teacher Jeanette Haien, and I never played it. And I've always been a little bit frightened to play it because it is such a big work -- the First, the D-minor, . . . The Second, that would be even more frightening! But one of these days -- I don't know when -- I'd love to try it.

``I have other things that I have yet to do. I've played the `Emperor' for the first time this year, so I have to digest and absorb it. [He records it in two years as part of a complete Beethoven concerto cycle with the Concertgebouw, Bernard Haitink conducting.] I'd like to learn the Chopin F-minor -- I've done the E-minor [No. 1]. And also the Bartok Third interests me. So there are quite a few concertos before I get to Brahms One.''

Clearly the Brahms makes him a bit nervous, but are nerves a problem in general? ``I'm always nervous at the beginning. I can get comfortable during the process of a performance, and I can forget myself, so in that way I am lucky. Also, the nerves aren't necessarily a bad thing at the beginning of a performance, because they key oneself up. And that makes things more exciting . . . sometimes.''

How does he go about learning a new work? ``What I'll first do is read the piece through and see how long the phrases are, and see where the points of tension are within those phrases. This doesn't so much involve learning the notes, as such, as just getting an idea what the harmonies are, where the emphases are, how I see the piece constructed. And I would work on that before I would get into learning the notes, actually.

``Then it would be a process of learning the notes through fingerings, finding the best fingerings musically -- which I feel is an important process. I wasn't always into that process. It was really with Clifford Curzon [the late, distinguished British pianist]. I did a lot of work with him, where he really worked a lot on fingerings, the way a violinist would, to find the best fingerings to communicate the phrase. And the hand motions as well. He learned this from Schnabel -- that the hand, working in an organic way with the music, would express the idea.

``That would already be the second phase. After that, then I'd work on it, starting again from the beginning, trying to see what tempo it goes at -- because I haven't really worked so much in tempo as yet -- what tempo I feel comfortable with, trying to get things up to what I feel is the right speed and seeing how it works altogether. It is not until the third stage that I can really get to hear what the piece sounds like in a real way.''

In some cases he does background research on the life of a particular composer, but most often, he studies a range of that composer's extra-keyboard works. ``The vocal works of any composer actually illuminate a lot. It helps to know Schubert's `Winterreisse,' for instance. You get a special atmosphere of what Schubert was pained about. Mozart operas were essential to understanding the piano concertos.''

He often studies composers' or performers' editions of the great keybaord works for the fingerings, a pastime he finds often startling, always instructive. He lives in London these days, and programs a chunk of his time to be home not only to learn new repertoire, and study other music -- ``as a musician it has to be done'' -- but to spend time with his wife and 11/2-year-old child.

The way Murray Perahia sums up his approach to his career is superb advice for all young performers: ``To know what you want is the most important thing. Not to be at other people's mercy, and accept engagements right and left, because engagements are not music. Having plans musically, saying that you feel you need to do this -- and making that the direction of your life. And allowing time to do it. Making plans that come from the inside, where you listen to what your impulses are about music.''

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