Classical Music Review: A Love-in for Itzhak Perlman

Violinist Itzhak Perlman is the go-to guy when a world-class violinist is needed at presidential inaugurations, for visiting royalty, and as a guest for cooking shows.

Itzhak Perlman. Presented by the Boston Celebrity Series. At Symphony Hall, Boston, MA, November 20, 2011.

By Susan Miron

Itzhak Perlman -- he has a mother lode of charisma.

Shortly before I went to hear Itzhak Perlman on Sunday, he was featured in a New York Times obituary of René Morel, a restorer of rare violins. Perlman had entrusted his two great instruments, a Stradavarius and a Guarnerius, to Mr. Morel. “He would put up his sleeve and say, ‘You see the goose bumps?'” Mr. Perlman recalled. “He said as long as he didn’t get the goose bumps, it was not properly adjusted.” Mr. Perlman then worried, “What am I going to do now?. . . I’m going to have to find somebody who can produce goose bumps.”

When Perlman’s fans fill a hall, as they did on Sunday for his appearance on the excellent Boston Celebrity Series, they, perhaps unconsciously, expect goose bumps from his playing. And I expect many had that experience at Symphony Hall in Boston. Perlman is a charming and funny raconteur and has a mother lode of charisma. And his sound is lush and sweet no matter what he plays.

Perlman has been a superstar for some 50 years—he is 66. Despite the arrival of another generation of seriously gifted violinists, no one has ever captured the public’s imagination like Perlman, who appeared on the scene in the 1950s, when, as the program notes say, he was “propelled into the international arena with an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1958.”

Most concert-goers are familiar with his biography; he won The Leventritt Award, the first of his mile-long list of important prizes, when he was 16. The winner of 15 Grammy Awards and four Emmy Awards, he’s played for several movies, most notably Schindler’s List. He is the go-to guy when a world-class violinist is needed at presidential inaugurations, for visiting royalty, and as a guest for cooking shows. He’s a fun guy, and his ebullient personality comes across great on television, whether it is one of his many documentaries or his unforgettable (by me, anyway) appearance on Sesame Street decades ago.

Like many great violinists—his colleague Pinchas Zuckerman, Anne Sophie Mutter, and Joshua Bell—Perlman has had a side career as a conductor, although, like the other violinists, he will always be known, respected and loved most because of how he plays the violin.

Having been wildly famous for so long, Perlman can do and play what and where he pleases. Often his concerts are advertised with no program, as if it hardly mattered. Wild cheering as if for a rock star began the moment Perlman came on stage. Clapping broke out in a pause in the first piece, between movements, and after each piece. A rare, frenzied standing ovation occurred before intermission. This was a love-in for Perlman.

The program was based on romantic duos and sonatas for violin and piano—a meat and potatoes program, much of which can be played by gifted conservatory students. Composed between 1826 and 1886, the program featured easy listening classical music by great, 19th-century composers—no music from the 20th-century or by the famous virtuoso composers for violin, such as Wieniawski, Paganini, or Sarasate. I would imagine this was music Perlman has been playing his whole life.

Franz Schubert’s Rondo for Violin and Piano in B minor, D. 895, Opus 70 “Rondo brilliant” (1826) opened the program. As Steven Ledbetter points out in his program notes, “The general audience in Vienna was in the middle of a Rossini craze, and anything the slightest bit less brilliant was simply not of interest to Viennese audiences.” The Rondo is in a single movement of about 13 minutes and is a standard recital piece, like the compositions and encores that followed it. The pianist, Rohan De Silva, regularly performs with the most prestigious violinists and has been Perlman’s steady duo partner since the great Samuel Sanders died.

Throughout the first half, I had trouble hearing De Silva. His piano was at short-stick, and there seemed to me no reason for this because the piano parts were of great importance. Still, the Schubert received a lovely performance. It was a piece I somehow hadn’t heard before, and I was glad for such a beautiful introduction.

Next came Johannes Brahms’ Sonata No.2 in A major for Violin and Piano, Opus 100 (1886), the shortest of his three violin and piano sonatas: it is a piece that contains many song-like melodies. Perlman played with great sweetness throughout these three movements. Again, I felt the piano was playing too quietly, that the duet nature of this fine piece was not quite balanced.

What followed was billed merely as Three Hungarian Dances (1869) by Brahms, arranged by Joseph Joachim (the great violinist). The Hungarian Dances have an interesting history, partly because European musicians in the Classical and Romantic eras were smitten by the so-called “gypsy” music of Hungary. Brahms became familiarized with this music in 1852 when he served as accompanist for a Hungarian violinist, Eduard Reményi.

Itzhak Perlman — he was generous with his six encores, all announced with his customary charm from the stage.

He improvised 21 Hungarian Dances, originally for piano, which he would play for friends, and eventually collected two sets, one published in 1869 at the same time as his German Requiem and another 11 years later. Brahms originally wrote them for piano duet, then, when he realized how popular they were, rewrote them for piano solo. Brahms, along with Dvorák and others, then orchestrated the gems. Finally, Joseph Joachim prepared arrangements for violin and piano. As piano solos, these are fabulous virtuoso vehicles (see Julius Katchen and Evgeny Kissin on YouTube), but Perlman let loose with his famous pyrotechnics and dazzled all present. His standing ovation before intermission was deserved if only for these Hungarian Dances. (But I certainly wish their numbers had been listed!)

The second half featured the prodigious Camille Saint-Saëns’s rarely heard Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Opus 75 (1885). By this point, I had moved towards the middle of the hall, wondering whether, even in this great hall, seat placement mattered, and did it ever. For the rest of the afternoon, I heard Mr. De Silva much better but still didn’t understand why he didn’t use a full-stick at the piano in this very important keyboard part. This was clearly the recital’s musical high point, and both players give it their all, playing with flawless ensemble skills and the highest level of virtuosity.

Perlman was generous with his six encores, all announced with his customary charm from the stage. The audience continued to be besotted, especially when he told jokes about each piece. The most interesting of these was Fritz Kreisler’s Tambourin Chinois, a brilliant virtuoso display, like most other Kreisler encores (Perlman played two others), all written for Kreisler’s own use. Other charmers were Isaac Albeniz’s Tango and Ries’s Perpetuum Mobile. I left goosebump-free but quite happy nevertheless. All in all, a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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