Until a little less than six years ago, everybody in the classical music business seemed to know who Murray Perahia was.
Musicians as distinguished as Leon Fleisher said he was the kind of musician who inspired hope for music's future; many American critics called him the best pianist this country had ever produced; and European critics adored him so much they usually forgot that Perahia was American.
But since the early '90s, discussions about the pianist have been not about who, but where Perahia was and what had happened to him. Except for a very few appearances and a very large number of cancellation notices, Perahia seemed to have dropped out of sight. Rumors abounded: He had had a nervous breakdown; he had burned out; he had contracted a mysterious illness; he had injured his hands playing the piano; he had injured his hands playing pinochle; he was the latest victim of the Vladimir Horowitz curse. According to Perahia himself, who seemed hale and hearty during a recent telephone conversation and who gives a recital in the Shriver Hall Concert Series at 8 tonight, the truth is a little more mundane.
"It wasn't anything to do with piano playing," says Perahia, whose Crotona Park/Bronx accent has been almost completely disguised by more than two decades of residence in Great Britain. "It was a stupid paper cut."
Perahia put out of commission by a piece of paper?
Yes, says Perahia -- particularly because that cut was on the all-important thumb and led to an infection, which, in turn, caused a bone spur that left the right hand all but incapacitated and in extraordinary, unending pain.
Perahia remembers well the moment he realized he was in deep trouble.
It was almost exactly 5 1/2 years ago, and Perahia had arrived at a London studio to record a Schubert song cycle with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
"He couldn't sing, and I couldn't play," Perahia says.
In Fischer-Dieskau's case, it was entirely understandable. The great German baritone was then 66 years old and at the end of a great career, almost as remarkable for its longevity as for its discography. But Perahia was only 44 and just about to enter what are, for a pianist, the prime years -- in which unimpaired facility and energy are finally matched by experience and wisdom.
"It was terrible," the pianist says. "The pain was awful -- bone pain always is -- and it didn't matter if I played or not."
Making matters worse was that no one seemed able to diagnose the problem.
"Everybody had lots of advice for me -- and the less they knew, the more they had," he says.
In all of that time, the pianist had one short remission -- nine months in which he made one of the finest recordings ever made of Chopin's Four Ballades.
"I had less than one year in which I was able to play and more than four years of worry," he says.
But a little over a year ago, doctors at a Louisville, Ky., clinic, specializing in bone disorders, were finally able to diagnose the pianist's problem and to perform an operation that completely restored his thumb. Part of the mystery in figuring out what ailed him was that no one, up to that point, had stopped to consider something as seemingly innocuous as a paper cut.
But the pianist never gave up.
"It wasn't so much that I refused to give up the piano," he says, "as much as that I was determined to find out what was wrong -- and then, if it couldn't be fixed, to contemplate something besides music."
Of all the rumors that circulated, Perahia says, the most ridiculous were those about Vladimir Horowitz.
In the early 1980s, the legendary pianist and Perahia became close friends.
To music aficionados, this seemed strange. Horowitz was the great musical mountebank, whose plangent tone provoked rumors -- justified, as it turned out -- that he tampered with the strings of his instrument, and whose idiosyncratic and exciting performances of the virtuoso repertory had dazzled audiences for decades. Perahia was the refined and spiritually pure poet-priest of music, whose repertory eschewed virtuoso works and concentrated instead on the masterpieces of the Austro-Germanic canon.
Horowitz had always been considered to have exerted a baleful influence upon younger pianists. It was said that his most talented students and proteges -- Byron Janis, Gary Graffman, Ivan Davis and Ronald Turini, among them -- had failed to live up to their potential because Horowitz had led them astray.
In fact, however, the relationship of Perahia and Horowitz was based upon mutual respect and admiration. And they actually shared stylistic similarities, particularly in the refined intensity of their Chopin and in the elegance of their Scarlatti.
In the years before his death in 1989, Horowitz also became greatly interested in Mozart, in whose music Perahia was an acknowledged master.
"We spent a lot of time discussing Mozart," Perahia says. "And one day, he said to me, 'There is something I want to tell you: If you want to be more than a virtuoso, you should first become a virtuoso.'
"I replied that I had always considered that repertory very daunting. He said, 'I can help you with that.' He never, ever separated music from technique. Everything he suggested was wonderfully musical, and he showed me ways of getting colors and sounds from the instrument that I had never imagined."
In the late 1980s, therefore, Perahia began to play pieces that he had always admired from a distance -- the "Etudes-Tableaux" of Rachmaninoff, the "Spanish Rhapsody" and Sonata in B Minor of Liszt, the "Prelude, Chorale and Fugue" of Franck and the "Handel Variations" of Brahms. He played these pieces for several years and without strain, Perahia says. But when the pain in his thumb led him to begin canceling concerts a few years after Horowitz's death, stories began to circulate that Perahia's Horowitz-inspired penchant for heavy virtuoso works had strained him beyond his physical capacities.
Perahia will eventually return to that repertory -- "though not for TTC another year or two," he says. The reason for his delay is the second of the two good things that happened during his illness.
"The first of them is that I was able to spend a lot more time with my wife and my two boys," he says. "The second was that I rediscovered the music of Bach."
Perahia is now involved in a long-term project in which he will record almost all of Bach's keyboard works for the Sony Classical label.
"What happened is that when I was ill and couldn't play, I started listening to a lot of Bach," he says. "It began with the keyboard works, some of which I had performed when I was younger, and then I turned to the Passions and Cantatas. I began studying and analyzing them, and it was not long before I began listening to Bach in my head.
"It's music that gave me a great deal of inspiration when I was ill," Perahia continues. "Now I'm just grateful that I'm able to perform it."
Pub Date: 4/02/97