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Friday, April 5, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Classical Music

A grand pianist: Murray Perahia's mastery and modesty go hand in hand

Seattle Times music critic

Murray Perahia, pianist


President's Piano Series recital of Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Meany Theater, University of Washington, Seattle; $55, 206-543-4880 or 206-292-ARTS.
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Piano fanatics tend to have fierce admiration for their favorites and scorn for the less-admired, but there is a particular and widespread reverence for one virtuoso: Murray Perahia.

Maybe it's because we almost lost him a decade ago, when a persistent and career-threatening thumb injury in 1991 led to a 1996 surgery and a long recuperative period during which it was unclear whether he would ever play again. After his return, no one would ever take this pianist for granted again.

Whatever the reasons, Perahia's recital at Meany Theater next Tuesday is a hotly awaited event in a springtime that is bringing a veritable parade of great pianists to the area: Andras Schiff, John O'Conor, Vladimir Feltsman, Ian Hobson (all of these within the past few weeks); Ralf Gothóni (tomorrow and Sunday with the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, 206-343-0445); and Alfred Brendel (April 16 in a Benaroya Hall recital, 206-215-4747).

Even in such great company, Perahia, 54, is something special. One critic, the famously acerbic Alan Rich, calls him "the most satisfactory, the most honorable American pianist." The choice of "honorable" is interesting in a world in which top pianists are usually acclaimed mainly for their dazzling, dexterous digits. Perahia has those, but there also is a quality in his playing that suggests direct contact with a higher source of honor and goodness and spiritual uplift. It's no wonder that another reviewer once called his performances "truly life-enhancing."

Modest and sober on the concert stage, Perahia never plays to the gallery; in fact, he usually seems slightly appalled when he strides to the piano and looks out upon the audience, to whom he typically makes a brief bow. Clearly, he wants to get right to the music. Curtain calls can seem awkward, as if he feels surprised anyone would want encores. His ego seems to disappear on the stage — but no player ever put a more personal and deeply imaginative stamp on the music.

Perahia's long period of inactivity during his recuperation led him to intensive study and analysis of music, especially that of Bach — that great master of counterpoint and the keyboard. That study has borne amazing fruit later on, in Bach performances and recordings (especially of the Goldberg Variations and the keyboard concertos) that are among the best work Perahia has ever done. Happily, he has "absolutely no lingering effects," as he puts it, from the injury.

Now, Perahia is turning from Bach to Chopin, whose complete Etudes Perahia has just recorded (the CD hasn't been released yet). His Meany program includes a tasty assortment of Chopin: two of the four great Ballades (Nos. 2 and 3); two of the Mazurkas; three of the Etudes and the Nocturne in B Major. (He also is playing Schubert's Sonata in C Minor and Beethoven's "32 Variations on an Original Theme" in C Minor.)

Why Chopin, after such a study of Bach?

"Bach was Chopin's favorite composer," soft-spoken Perahia explained in a recent interview from his London home.

"When Chopin went to Majorca for his health, and to compose, the only music he brought with him was Bach's 'Well-Tempered Clavier.' And the homage to Bach is clear in Chopin's first Etude."

The period of inactivity has made Perahia think differently about a lot of the music he played in the past, including Chopin. He says he "hears these pieces totally different than 10 years ago. I can like or dislike my old recordings, but there is no question that I approach the music in a different way. I hear things I didn't hear before. I play things a little more freely, perhaps, and I see the underlying structure more clearly."

Perahia's new approach has led him to espouse some music he feels is underrated, including the Beethoven variations he'll play in Seattle.

"Even Beethoven underrated these variations," says Perahia, "saying that he was surprised later in life to discover that the quality of this work wasn't higher. But I feel he was wrong. He creates a theme, or motive, and out of this he creates a whole world of incredible imagination and beauty."

Living in London, Perahia — who is married with two sons — is able to take part in one of the world's most spectacular cornucopias of the arts (it is no accident that Alfred Brendel, another émigré, is a longtime London resident). Does Perahia, a former New Yorker, still consider himself an American pianist?

"Now more than ever!" he declares.

"After September 11th, I feel close to America as never before. As a New Yorker, to watch this terrible thing on the TV — it was just ... destroying."

A recent announcement of Perahia's appointment as principal guest conductor of the venerable Academy of St. Martin in the Field's may have alarmed the pianist's fans, who are afraid that Perahia will follow in the footsteps of Vladimir Ashkenazy (another superlatively gifted pianist who has been seduced away from the keyboard by the podium).

"I'm not a conductor," explains Perahia, "and I won't do it, except for a month or two a year with this orchestra, which is really like playing chamber music. We will be doing Haydn, Mozart, a little Beethoven. I am trying to spread my ideas about music a little, beyond what I can do as a pianist."

What he does as a pianist is astonishing enough in its own right. Perahia has said (of the Bach keyboard concertos) that his goal is "to make the music sound not as if it were written in 1730, but that it was written yesterday." That great freshness of sound and the revelatory ways in which Perahia unveils whatever he plays guarantees that the music never gets stale.

That is perhaps the greatest achievement of the performing artist: To make the music live and breathe again before the eyes and ears of the listener.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com.

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