We all have our musical heroes – the singers whose voices we prefer over all others, the instrumentalists we idolise. When it comes to pianists there is a huge field to choose from – the advent of recorded sound over a hundred years ago has allowed us to listen across the 20th century. It produced giants of the keyboard from Rachmaninov onwards: Schnabel, Gilels, Arrau, Horowitz, Cortot, Richter. The list is long, and closer to our own time we might include Argerich, Pollini, Brendel, Lang Lang and Kissin.

For me, Murray Perahia, the man known as the “poet of the piano”, sits at the top of the tree – yet I’ve never had the opportunity to hear him in the concert hall. Perhaps his name is not as well known in Australia as it might be: he’s never been here, though we can look forward to his debut down under in 2013. Until then, it’s his recordings we have to rely on, and there are plenty, covering a broad range of repertoire from Chopin to Beethoven, from Bach to Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Brahms. My all-time favourite is a CD that includes his peerless performance of a collection of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words.

So when the opportunity to interview Perahia arose during a recent trip to London, I grabbed it. I was a little apprehensive. Research reveals a man not much interested in being interviewed
– adjectives like “restrained” and “distant” crop up in various profiles – so it was with some trepidation that producer Lucas Burns and I buzzed at the gate of the pianist’s home in North London one brisk morning last November. The taxi driver, on hearing we were to interview a famous musician, asked whether it was Sir Paul McCartney who lives two doors down in a large house behind a high wall.

Perahia’s house is charming, painted white with a bright blue door. Publicity photographs of the man himself show a youthful face, good looking and with soft straight hair falling on his forehead. He certainly doesn’t look his 64 years. All concerns that he might be less than welcoming to an unknown interviewer from far-off Australia were dispelled by the sight of him standing, smiling broadly at the open door… In his socks. Does this mean it’s a shoes-off house, I wondered? But no, he insisted we leave our shoes on as he led us through the marble-floored vestibule into the house.

It’s a beautiful place. Sheet music is piled high atop an open grand piano. We made ourselves comfortable at the dining table beyond a sleek kitchen overlooking a wintry garden through French doors – Perahia pointed out that one of the bare trees is over 500 years old, (“It was here in Shakespeare’s day”).

We set the mics up and the interview began. My first question: what had he been playing before we arrived? “Bach. I was going through the French Suites.”

“Do you play every day?”

“Oh yes, always. I love to be at the piano. I hate actual drudgery – toil, technical hard work, so I don’t do that too often, though you do have to, to some extent. But I just love to make music.”

And so we began a journey into the life of this fascinating man, for whom career comes second to the business of being a musician. The picture that emerged was of a pianist utterly dedicated to music. Perahia came from a poor Jewish family based in Brooklyn; his career took flight when in 1972, at the age of 25, he won the Leeds Piano Competition. In a way his life can be divided into “before Leeds” and “after Leeds”. Three concerts a year leapt to 80; he became an artist in demand all over the world.

Before Leeds, the young Murray was a force to be reckoned with. As a young child barely older than a toddler, he went with his father every Saturday night to the Metropolitan Opera.

“My mother didn’t go to the opera because music bored her. She’s still bored with music – she’s 98! But I heard an Italian opera every Saturday night and I loved it. I used to sing the arias back to my father in fake Italian. I went from the ages of four to six religiously every Saturday night. I didn’t sit on my father’s lap; I had a seat and I could sort of see what was going on. I couldn’t understand the plots – I still don’t understand the plots! It’s the power of the music that still gets me.” Perahia chuckled telling this story, the first of many amusing anecdotes that brought laughter to our conversation.

The story gives a clue to the importance of singing in Perahia’s music-making. He is renowned for the singing tone he makes on the piano, something he attributes to his early love of those operas he saw as a boy, as well as his own singing in the choir of the family’s local synagogue and as a soloist at weddings and other celebrations. The child showed early promise as a pianist and a small piano was bought at Macy’s.

“Later on we got a proper piano, but still a little one. I played immediately; I loved to play and I loved to improvise, which is something I’ve lost. But I didn’t like to practise, I hated practising and until I was 15 I never practised.”

How do piano students overcome a dislike of practice?

“Well, I think it should always be fun. In other words: think musically, think in phrases, try to incorporate the technical work with the musical work; then I think you can have a good time.”

Perahia told the story of being taken to see the jazz pianist Erroll Garner. After the show he was introduced to Garner and said to him: “Your music is very reminiscent of Bartók and Debussy”, to which Garner responded, “Man, I don’t know those cats!” Murray was eight at the time.

His association with the legendary Vladimir Horowitz is an “unforgettable” part of his life. He told me the story of their first meeting. Perahia had been to a music camp run by Rudolf Serkin at the Marlboro Festival and Serkin, observing the 18-year-old’s prodigious talent, suggested that he work with his good friend Horowitz. He promised to put them in touch. Months passed and nothing happened until one day the phone rang at the Perahia residence. Murray answered.

“I’d like to speak to Mr Perahia,” said the voice on the other end.

“Hold on”, said Murray, thinking the caller wanted his father.

“No, I want to speak to Murray Perahia. This is Mr Horowitz.”

Murray started to laugh as he recounted the conversation. “In my neighbourhood everybody was Mr Horowitz. I thought he was the baker. I thought I had taken too many sweets and he was going to make me pay for them. And he said, ‘I think you have the wrong idea; I’m the friend of Mr Serkin’s.’ I gulped as he said he wanted to hear me play. The short of it was that I played for him the following evening.”

Horowitz was sufficiently impressed with what he heard – a Bach French Suite – and invited Perahia to study with him. But that meant a commitment for two years and payment of a substantial sum of money upfront, something the Perahias couldn’t afford, so they had to pass on the offer.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Years later, when Perahia was in his forties, they met again and Horowitz started giving him tips. One of those has stuck in Perahia’s mind: “To be more than a virtuoso, first you have to be a virtuoso.” That is, he had to work on the repertoire of pieces that, at that stage, he didn’t know much about – Liszt paraphrases, Chopin Études, Scriabin, Rachmaninov – the really difficult virtuosic piano music.

“You get a bigger scope, the piano becomes in a way like an orchestra. It has more flexibility, it
has a greater possibility. And then that gives you more resources – colours that you might use or not – when playing composers like Bach, Beethoven or Mozart.”

I recalled reading that Liszt was another pedagogue who insisted his pupils make the piano sing. Is it the same thing in playing Liszt as in playing Mendelssohn’s small-scale Songs Without Words, for instance?

“It’s a very different thing, Liszt-singing and Mendelssohn-singing. Mendelssohn is so uniquely natural; it’s not operatic singing, it’s not for a huge stage, it’s the way you would sing a Bach choral prelude.”

Is it in the touch?

“It’s in the touch, yes. It’s so instinctive; I can’t give you a recipe.”

Any pianist will tell you that physical stamina and strength are essential tools of the trade. Some time ago Perahia suffered a devastating injury to his thumb. It was actually an infection that didn’t heal properly when, because of a heavy concert schedule, he stopped taking the prescribed antibiotics. The infection forced him to stop playing.

“It was a nightmare. It meant about a year at different intervals in my life when I couldn’t play. It was a terrible period. I’m not prone to depression – I’m generally very happy and upbeat – but I could say I almost went into a depression.”

He spent this period of enforced rest studying and analysing music scores. He is profoundly influenced by the musical analyst Heinrich Schenker, who developed a theory of how a piece of tonal music is unified based on counterpoint and figured bass. Perahia laments the fact that music students today don’t necessarily learn these fundamentals.

“You know, I think we’re shamed, as classical musicians, by jazz musicians because they know it much better than we do. They know their harmony in a way that classical musicians don’t have any idea about. Some violinists don’t even know what key they’re playing in!”

The conversation turns to conducting. Perahia is Principal Guest Conductor with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and has toured extensively with the ensemble. He conducts from the keyboard in concertos, and from the podium for symphonies.

We talked about the astonishing phenomenon of different conductors producing different sounds from the same orchestras.

“I have no idea why, but that’s one of the magic things. When I was in conducting class we had about five or six conducting majors and there was a time when we conducted in front of an orchestra and each of us had a different sound. It’s extraordinary! Every pianist has a different sound, but every conductor?”

He told me the amazing story of the Berlin Philharmonic playing under Herbert von Karajan. The timpanist was studying the score and noticed that suddenly the sound changed, becoming darker and more intense, more vibrant. He saw that Karajan was doing nothing different, and he just couldn’t understand it. Then he noticed up the back of the hall Wilhelm Furtwängler – one of the 20th century’s greatest symphonic and operatic conductors – had walked in. The mere presence of another revered conductor was enough to change the sound of the orchestra. It’s an old story and Perahia is still incredulous.

But he is unwilling to try to describe the sound he elicits from his orchestra, and in any case, conducting comes second to the piano.

This marvellous and humble pianist, who at one time was a frequent chamber music partner of Pablo Casals and accompanist for Peter Pears, lives a life immersed in music: the study of music and the performance of music.“Music opens a different world for all of us. It’s a more perfect world, as far as I can see, because your joys and your dreams can be lived, the dissonances resolved, and this doesn’t happen in regular life.

“I am a pianist,” he says simply. “I really love the piano – my challenge is there.”

Murray Perahia makes his Australian debut at the Sydney Opera House on November 1. View event details here. Margaret Throsby is a presenter on ABC Classic FM.