Murray Perahia was born in the Bronx borough of New York City to a family of Sephardi Jewish origin. According to the biography on his Mozart piano sonatas CD, his first language was Judaeo-Spanish or, Ladino. The family came from Thessaloniki, Greece. His father moved to the United States in 1935.
Perahia began studying the piano at age four with a teacher he says was "very limiting" because she made him play a single piece until it was perfect. He says his musical interests blossomed at age 15 for reasons he can't explain, and he began to practice seriously. At 17, Perahia attended Mannes College, where he studied keyboard, conducting, and composition with his teacher and mentor Mieczysław Horszowski. During the summer, he also attended Marlboro, where he studied with musicians Rudolf Serkin, Alexander Schneider, and Pablo Casals, among others. He played duets for piano four hands with Serkin, who later made Perahia his assistant at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, a position he held for over a year.
In 1965, Perahia won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions. In 1972, he was the first North American to win first prize at the Leeds Piano Competition, helping to cement its reputation for advancing the careers of young pianistic talent.Dame Fanny Waterman recalls anecdotally (in Wendy Thompson's book Piano Competition: The Story of the Leeds) that Horszowski had phoned her prior to the competition, announcing that he would be the winner.
In the 1980s, Perahia was invited to work with Vladimir Horowitz, an admirer of his art. Perahia says this had a defining influence on his pianism. He became close to Horowitz and visited Horowitz frequently to play for the elder pianist during Horowitz's last four years.
Perahia resides in London. He is married and the father of two adult children.
In 1990, Perahia suffered a cut to his right thumb, which became septic. He took antibiotics for this condition, but they affected his health. In 1992, his career was threatened by a bone abnormality in his hand causing inflammation requiring several years away from the keyboard, and a series of operations. During that time, he says, he found solace through studying the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. After recovering, he produced a series of award-winning recordings of Bach's keyboard works in the late 1990s, most notably a cornerstone rendition of the Goldberg Variations.
In early 2005, Perahia's hand problem recurred, prompting him to withdraw from the concert stage on the advice of his doctors. He cancelled several appearances at Barbican Centre, as well as a 10-city national tour of the United States, but returned in fine form with recitals in German cities in 2006 and at the Barbican in April 2007.
In autumn of 2007, he completed a triumphant 10-city tour of the United States. Owing to his hand problem, and on the advice of his doctor, Perahia cancelled a February 2008 solo recital at Barbican Centre and a tour in the United States with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (March and April 2008). He returned to the platform in August 2008, touring with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the direction of Bernard Haitink, and had an Asian recital tour in October and November.
In January 2009, Murray Perahia was appointed president of the Jerusalem Music Center established by violinist Isaac Stern. He believes in the importance of music education and regards classical music as the "incarnation of democracy." In an interview with Haaretz newspaper he said: "Music represents an ideal world where all dissonances resolve, where all modulations —that are journeys— return home, and where surprise and stability coexist."
^Bargreen, Melinda (2002-04-05). "A grand pianist: Murray Perahia's mastery and modesty go hand in hand". The Seattle Times. Archived from the original on 2007-03-19. Retrieved 2012-12-22. "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)."