We are fortunate to have an abundance of good violinists in the Boston area, and even some great ones. But Joseph Silverstein is a truly legendary violinist, and his recital on Sunday afternoon, November 22, at Seully Hall of the Boston Conservatory was a special event. The program began with the Sonata for Violin and Piano in d minor, op. 108 of Johannes Brahms. The pianist Max Levinson proved to be an ideal partner in this performance, making it seem as though he and Silverstein had played together for years.
Joseph Silverstein is of course not only a great violinist, but also a great musician. His tone in the Brahms sonata was always elegant, using a fast vibrato that created a shimmering sound that was never forced. His bow glided easily over the strings, yet he also brought out all of the rhythmic subtleties and incisiveness for which Brahms is famous. His portamentos were both breathtaking and unexpected—it is obvious that he has lived with this music for decades, and he clearly enjoyed sharing his interpretation with the audience.
Silverstein next performed the Sonata for Solo Violin in a minor, BWV 1003 by J.S. Bach. Playing from memory, he was in complete control of this work, bringing out any of the voices at will. The fugue was especially revealing for its clarity. Although perhaps not as “historically informed” as might now be customary, this performance conveyed a sophisticated understanding in its attention to the contrapuntal writing that ordinarily makes it so difficult to perform Bach’s solo sonatas. Mr. Silverstein also took brisk tempos, so that the musical lines were exquisitely and lightly delineated.
The second half of the concert began with Yehudi Wyner’s Dances of Atonement (1976). The two movements, Kol Nidre and V’hakohanim received a passionate performance by both performers. And now the real fun began — six virtuoso violin works by Fritz Kreisler. Silverstein introduced these well-known favorites with some witty remarks about Kreisler’s gentle act of forgery; that is, Kreisler attributed the works he himself had written to other composers, both real and imagined, until he finally let the public in on the joke. These short masterpieces gave Silverstein further opportunity to show off his unique bow-arm: from Kreisler’s Allegretto in the Style of Boccherini to his transcription of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance, Silverstein’s flying, up-bow staccato was breathtaking. Each of these miniatures paints an entire world, and it takes a violinist like Joseph Silverstein to make them come to life.
Following the Kreisler pieces came the popular Scherzo-Tarantella by Henryk Wieniawski. All aspiring violinists study this virtuosic work, but few can make it sound so easy and have so much fun performing it as Silverstein; he seems to have retained all the strength and vigor of his younger years, but added the experiences of a long and distinguished life in music to make these renditions all the more poignant.
How we wish Joseph Silverstein had never left the Boston years ago to pursue his international career as a violinist and conductor. The extraordinary intelligence and musicianship of this master violinist, and his musical leadership have been sorely missed.