Murray Perahia: An Eternal Sephardic Jewish Recital

By Benjamin Ivry

Published February 11, 2009.
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A New York native who relocated to London a couple of decades ago, pianist Murray Perahia is about to launch his latest American recital tour. At 61, Perahia remains a lifelong student with a quest for emotional depth that has expanded steadily over the years. Unlike other pianists who merely record Beethoven, he is preparing his own edition of the sonatas and has always claimed that music’s spiritual challenges far outweigh any technical obstacles.

A finger ailment forced Perahia into a performing hiatus, during which he made an in-depth study of Bach, even buying a harpsichord to better enter Johann Sebastian’s world. This studious, methodical acquisition of mastery is clearly a family trait. New Yorkers have long relied on his younger brother, Henry Perahia, 60, who serves as chief bridge and roadway officer of New York’s Department of Transportation.

Henry Perahia tends to face only the audiences at the Concrete Industry Board. He worries not about Bach, but about too many SUVs crowding the Brooklyn Bridge. While Murray is frequently quoted in the media about the transcendent spirituality of music, Henry tends to focus on such subjects as marine borers — boring sponges, marine worms and bivalve mollusks — which gnaw away at timber pilings underneath Manhattan highways built above water. Yet Henry’s preoccupations have surprising parallels to those of his more internationally famous brother.

Both Perahia brothers see proficiency as an ongoing process: Henry told The New York Times that repairing the Williamsburg Bridge while keeping it open to traffic was “like rebuilding a car’s engine while the car is still running.” Murray, on the other hand, told Newsweek, “Music is always in motion.… A lot of pianists practice away and stop searching. Why is that B-flat there? Where is that F-sharp going? You see, it’s like an airplane — it’s quite difficult to make the machinery take flight.”

Despite the mechanical similes, the Perahias share an organic quest for self-improvement that may be, in part, due to their roots. Born to Judesmo-speaking parents of Sephardic origin who in 1935 immigrated to the Bronx from Thessaloniki (Salonika), the brothers attended a Sephardic synagogue on 161st Street in the Bronx. From age 3, Little Moishe, as Murray Perahia was then known, was taken to the Metropolitan Opera, as he recently told Haaretz. He added: “I fell in love with the singing, especially the power and force of the tenors.… The next day I would sing the arias I heard at the opera.”

In the 1950s, such Met Opera tenors as Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce brought a tradition of hazanut to Romantic operas, and the extraordinary intense singing quality of Perahia’s later playing may have been inspired, in part, by such performances, echoing those that he heard in the Sephardic synagogue. Still later, Perahia’s lyricism would be honed by collaborations with some of the mightiest lieder singers of the modern era, including Peter Pears, Janet Baker and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

These stars are among the eclectic musical Geonim (Jewish sages) from whom Perahia has drawn, a list that also includes Rudolf Serkin, Vladimir Horowitz and Georg Solti. For his muses, Perahia has mostly avoided false messiahs (unlike 17th-century Jews of Salonica, who were famously duped by Sabbatai Zevi), with the possible exception of French pianist Alfred Cortot. Regardless of Cortot’s notoriety as a Nazi collaborator during World War II, Perahia admires the late pianist’s artistry to the point of producing and editing recordings of Cortot’s master classes for a recent award-winning Sony Classical historical CD reissue.

Despite his musical championing of this high commissioner for the fine arts of the wartime Vichy regime, whose iniquity is documented in Myriam Chimènes’s “La Vie Musicale Sous Vichy” (Éditions Complexe, 2001), Perahia has strengthened his ties to Judaism in recent years. He keeps an apartment in Tel Aviv, and has just accepted the presidency of the Jerusalem Music Centre, where Isaac Stern, Arthur Rubinstein and others have performed and taught. Perahia’s elder son, Benjamin, an ardent Zionist, has done military service in Israel, where he now lives.

In performance, Perahia has recently expressed an occasional trenchant side that adds spice and zest, especially to his Bach, Mendelssohn and Chopin. This piquancy may also be a partial legacy of his anguished experiences with hand injuries, which, he recently told London’s Jewish Chronicle, made him feel that “somehow, in an abstract rather than a religious way, that suffering shapes you. Not only my own religious thought, but that of my ancestors, affected me in some way. The thing we have as Jews is that it’s a wonderfully abstract religion. Images are not allowed, so it’s welcome to abstract thought.”

Perahia’s entirely substantial artistry, like his sources of inspiration, surpasses usual performance limitations. “Murray Perahia: 25th Anniversary Edition,” a three-CD set released by Sony Classical a decade ago, includes commanding performances of an unparalleled range of music: Chopin, Brahms, Liszt, Bartok, Berg, Rachmaninov and Tippett. In such CDs, Perahia embraces the identity of a Romantic virtuoso, echoing the assertion of French-Jewish musicologist Vladimir Jankélévitch in his “Liszt and the Rhapsody: an Essay on Virtuosity” (1979) that a great musical performance, once heard, “can no longer be annihilated…. This astonishment of a single night is a moment which belongs to an eternal recital.” Whether assuring the solidity of a vast city’s bridges or preserving for posterity a transcendent lyrical astuteness, the Perahia family has earned our enduring trust and gratitude.

Murray Perahia will perform recitals in Berkeley, Calif., on March 19; Atlanta on March 22; West Palm Beach, Fla., on March 24; Kalamazoo, Mich., on March 26; Boston on March 29, and at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall on March 31.

Featured below is a clip from Perahia’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto, No. 4.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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