in: Reviews

March 9, 2010

Mostly Magnificent Music Making from Perlman

by

Itzhak Perlman is considered one of the great violinists of this or any era, and his recital before a packed house at Symphony Hall as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston last Sunday, March 7 reminded us exactly why. The program was a typical “violin recital,” but there was nothing typical or mundane about the playing of Perlman and his equally brilliant pianist Rohan de Silva. It was a magnificent afternoon of music making.

The duo opened with Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in F major, K. 376. Mozart’s violin sonatas, which come out of the 18th-century tradition of “keyboard sonatas with violin accompaniment,” were conceived as small-scale works, and they may be just a bit too small for Perlman’s big style of playing. This style worked to perfection, however, with Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major, M. 8, a great romantic warhorse that closed the first half of the program. Franck had composed this work in 1886 as a wedding present for another legendary violinist, the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, who actually played it on his wedding day. (There are no reports on what Ysaÿe’s bride-to-be was doing at the time, or what she thought about this part of the marriage ceremony.) Perlman played the sonata with all the intensity of an excited groom, and a romantic-era one at that. There were some delicious 19th-century slides in the second movement, and the superb communication and ensemble between the violinist and his pianist de Silva enabled both to indulge in a rhythmic freedom and expressive playing that made this performance of the Franck as good as it gets.

The second half of the program (the printed one, that is) was devoted to Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (1917), the third in a planned series of Six Sonates pour divers instruments. Debussy had already published the first for cello and piano, and the second (flute, viola and harp), but his fourth would have been the most exciting for this writer, since it was to be scored for oboe, horn and harpsichord! Alas, Debussy never wrote this work or any other; he died of cancer in 1918, making the violin sonata his final composition. Perlman gave a virtuoso performance of the Sonata, but like in the Mozart, he was sometimes too rough for this elegant French confection. For example, some passages in the first movement were taken at such a fast tempo that much detail got lost and the intonation suffered.

Quibbles aside, this was a masterful performance given by two masters of their instruments, both perfectly attuned to each other. It also set the stage for the “second” concert of this concert—a generous helping of seven encores that included some of the favorite bon-bons of the violin repertoire, such as Fritz Kreisler’s “Chanson Louis XIII in the Style of Couperin,” Joseph Joachim’s arrangement of Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 2” and the theme from John Williams’ “Schindler’s List.” Perlman enjoyed announcing these encores from the stage and obviously enjoyed playing them as well.  His listeners certainly enjoyed hearing them, and left Symphony Hall satisfied and smiling.

Mark Kroll, a well-known Boston harpsichordist and fortepianist, tours extensively as performer, lecturer, and leader of master classes in Europe, South America, the Balkans, and the Middle East. He has an extensive discography and list of publications, and has a website here.

6 Comments

  1. The Itzhak Perlman that Jeremy Eichler describes in Tuesday’s Globe — http://www.boston.com/ae/music/articles/2010/03/09/the_ever_hyped_itzhak_perlman_ returns_to_symphony_hall/ sounds much more like the one I’ve had to experience in the line of duty.

    A celebrity, it’s been said, is someone who is well known for being well known. Hence, Celebrity Series. Next question?

    Those fascinated by the distinctive pathology that superstar violin recitals are notoriously prone to would do well to look into Virgil Thomson’s “The Musical Scene” (1948) and “The Art of Judging Music” (1948). It’s the former that includes VT’s famous hatchet job on Jascha Heifetz, “Silk Underwear Music.”

    What NICE — and I mean REALLY nice — reviewers you find in BMint, where seldom is heard a discouraging word and if you’re like me you find yourself lusting for just an occasional outburst of personal animus, irresponsibility, or even discreet homicidal mania. Michael Steinberg, thou should’st be living at this hour!

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 10, 2010 at 2:14 am

  2. I see that the link to JE’s Globe review doesn’t work. It’s easy enough to track down, though.

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 10, 2010 at 2:18 am

  3. Perhaps we’re just more subtle than Richard and his colleagues were. A thin blade can be just as deadly as a hatchet. Seriously, I’ve seen unfavorable comments here–have even written a few–but I think what we (if I can be so brazen as to use that term) keep in mind is that professional musicians work hard at their trade, and oftentimes a bad night is just a bad night; maliciously or waspishly trashing their output accomplishes little of use to them or the readers, however cathartic it may be for the reviewer. Some performers, and composers, need to be taken to task when they are plainly not treating the audience with respect, and what I have read here tells me that our reviewers have said so when they thought so.

    As to VT, while he was probably the best-informed and most articulate music critic this country has produced, some of his judgments have been notoriously wrong–about Ives and Gershwin, for example–and many of his criticisms displayed little but prejudice of various sorts, and were infra his dig. The lesson for those of us who follow in his footsteps ought to be cautionary: be honest but be humble.

    Comment by Vance R. Koven — March 10, 2010 at 2:37 pm

  4. Evidently my little jabs of playful hyperbole weren’t taken as such. Please try to pay closer attention! And lighten up, buddy.

    Speaking not as an assassin — honest — but as a consumer of what BMint is putting on offer I have to say that rather a lot of space is given over to people’s remarking in saecula saeculorum that a pleasant time was had by all and, furthermore, how commendable and life-enhancing it was that such an event was taking place in the first place but then we’re Boston aren’t we … etc. etc.

    Parish newsletters are like that. And really, what value can there possibly be in being told that an ovation, or two or three or four ovations, took place? That’s PR speak, children. And it’s embarrassingly naive.

    As to having Boston musicians and academics writing about other Boston musicians, there may be no way around that problem — if it is one, let us hope not — barring very full disclosure statements, blood oaths, and polygraph tests.

    By my lights BMint functions wonderfully as an annals of performance and as a supplier of countless intriguing facts about music. Thank you so much. But the reviews, or at least a good many of them, one doesn’t so much read as sift through. Here, as in so much else, Americans lack for good models. (Insert here one of Joel Cohen’s spirited jeremiads about America’s going to hell, molto accelerando, in a handbasket.)

    Models. So have there been first-class writers on classical music out there in recent times? Yes, if you know where to find them. It’s an unexpectedly sizable list. On it you find Hilary Finch, Philip Kennicott, Robin Holloway, David Schiff, Roger Nichols, and the late Michael Oliver, all of whom I would have to call compulsively readable. Oh, to have Will Crutchfield on the Times again!

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 10, 2010 at 10:49 pm

  5. Has Richard Buell noticed the two recent coincidental hommages to his old Globe column?

    As Richard Buell used to say, “Received with thanks.” from Spectrum review and

    “Ultimately Gesamtkunst prevailed. Received with thanks!” from the Emmanuel Music “appreciation”

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 10, 2010 at 11:14 pm

  6. “Ultimately Gesamtkunst prevailed” may be what I wrote — is it, exactly? — but what it can possibly mean is beyond me. Writing back then, in haste, I know I would often think a word but neglect to type it, or to type it out in its entirety.

    Here’s the explanation, maybe. “Gesamtkunstwerk” is a term I remember flinging around in the interests of pretentiousness and filling up space. It’s Wagner’s term for total theater, a concept that meant not just music, drama, scenery, dancing, etc. all combined (i.e., gesamt) — in other words, a Wagner opera — but if possible everything else, too, including (as I like to imagine it) cooking, fireworks, and potato sack races. Need I say, that’s the route modern opera production has taken, though nobody uses that word as far as I know.

    Was that exclamation mark really in there? I tried to avoid the things, which have this gushy look about them that a real man will always endeavor to avoid.

    “Received with thanks” is something I adopted from my late friend Michael Steinberg.

    We were speaking above about critical ill temper. How widely known is it that Michael once slugged Peter Gelb? This is absolutely, verifiably true. There are a LOT of Michael Steinberg stories.

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 11, 2010 at 12:03 am

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