The first half of the Celebrity Series of Boston program, with the performance by legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Rohan De Silva in works by Schubert and Brahms, was excellent, but it was the second half of the program that injected the afternoon with multiple jaw-dropping moments. The Celebrity Series stayed true to its motto of “Engaging, Entertaining, and Enriching” on November 20 at Symphony Hall. Perlman has adopted a format in recent years that includes a series of encores announced from the stage, and if I register one complaint, it is that they robbed me of the opportunity to revel in the Saint-Saëns sonata, which rendered the six encore pieces mere cream-puffs by comparison.
Perlman and De Silva opened with Schubert’s Rondo for Violin and Piano in B minor, D. 895, Op. 70 “Rondeau brilliant.” Relative to what followed in the program, one might consider this a “rough start,” if only by comparison. The 1826 work is, as Steven Ledbetter notes, a rather “big-boned sonata form movement” that at times seems self-conscious in its attempts at virtuosity. The strength of the work lies in its thematic and harmonic ingenuity, and Perlman brought forth every lyrical nuance and dynamic marking, particularly in the slower and more expressive sections that contrasted the flashy opening gestures. De Silva’s rhythmic articulation sometimes came across as muddied — perhaps even over-pedaled — but his ability to navigate through Schubert’s harmonic labyrinth lent cohesion to the entire performance. The Allegro section was better matched between the two performers than the opening Andante, and almost imperceptible inaccuracies were subsumed by the sheer force of musical character.
The Brahms Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100 delivered a palette of the best of Brahmsian lyricism crafted into three movements of engaging thematic connectivity and collaboration on the part of Perlman and De Silva. In the middle movement, Andante tranquillo, Perlman cradled his instrument with tenderness, leaning into it with his eyes closed in prayerful reverie, relying upon only the smallest changes in articulation and gesture. The melodies, while always lyrical, remained intimate and never threatened to become more than they needed to be. I wished silently for the size of Symphony Hall to shrink suddenly, to oblige Perlman’s understated artistry.
Joachim’s violin arrangements of the Three Hungarian Dances by Brahms, originally for piano duet, can easily become overly rhetorical and culturally cliché in the wrong hands. Perlman, however, delivered more Brahms than Magyar, with intense motivic attention in the instrument’s highest tessitura and a clear sense of ritardando to finesse the characteristic rhythms. De Silva’s sound in the second of the three dances seemed heavy for the toe-tapping flourishes of Perlman’s playing, but his stunning cascades in the last piece had his fingers dancing on the keyboard in tandem with Perlman’s dexterity on the fingerboard. However, in light of what followed after intermission, the Schubert and Brahms works seemed mere warm-ups.
If Camille Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata No. 1 in d minor, Op. 75 had been the only piece this pair performed, I would have left without complaint. As with the Brahms sonata, Perlman maintained the chamber music essence when appropriate, but both he and De Silva seemed to play with more assuredness and energyThey were in top form, seamlessly exchanging textures and themes with mature and engaging sensitivity. Perlman played the beautiful hymn-like theme in the second movement with prayerful ardor, while the piano maintained the energy of the work underneath the violin’s lyricism. When the instruments switched musical roles, De Silva’s sense of the theme was breathtaking, as Perlman interlaced it with delicate filigree. It was the final movement, however, when fireworks erupted. The Allegro molto is a tour de force of elaborate rapid passagework, yet the display of impeccable technique was never overwrought or virtuosic for its own sake. De Silva and Perlman bubbled over with vitality and vigor, and one marveled at Perlman’s ability to captivate without the theatrics of bodily movement and facial expression that often upstage musicality. The final moments of the work were unforgettable, and Symphony Hall hosted a thunderous roar of sound as the audience almost unanimously leapt to its feet in applause. It was enthralling to witness such a sincere expression of awe and gratitude for what was one of the most memorable musical experiences I’ve ever had.
But Perlman was not done. Riding the wave of the audience’s euphoria, the performers returned to the stage, followed by the page turner, who had her arms full with a large stack of music books. Perlman, with his characteristic charm and affability, joked that he was examining a printout of all the pieces he had played in Boston since… 1912. The first “encore” was Kreisler’s Sicillienne and Rigaudon ( in the style of François Francoeur). The virtuosity seemed to be a party trick in comparison with the Saint-Saëns, but whereas the latter required true collaborative virtuosity from both performers, this piece truly was Perlman’s show. His second encore reminded one that virtuosity is not restricted to the nineteenth century, with the delightful Allegro by Joseph-Hector Fiocco, an eighteenthth-century Flemish composer whose “fame,” as Perlman quipped, largely stems from the work’s inclusion in the Suzuki violin method books. The Kreisler transcription of Weber’s “Larghetto” offered a respite from Perlman’s endless supply of dexterity, instead filling the hall with sounds from a musician well aware of the fine line between expressive and maudlin. Ever the public entertainer, Perlman continued his humorous commentary in his introduction of Kreisler’s Tambourin Chinois. It would have been incredibly easy to hear this piece as parodistic with the stereotypical pentatonicism that reflects Kreisler’s clichéd “orientalism,” but Perlman brought forth the well-crafted gestures and variety of colors that make the piece more than a blasé experiment in cultural misappropriation.
With four encores, no one would have complained had Perlman and De Silva ended the concert there, but the seemingly tireless performers concluded the evening with two more works: Albeniz’s Tango for Violin and Piano and Franz Ries’s Perpetuum Mobile. The latter piece, in particular, is often subject to characterless displays of gratuitous speed (not that the composer had much more in mind for it), but Perlman’s musicality was ever-present, with De Silva providing the harmonic and thematic backbone for Perlman’s entertaining pyrotechnics.
For the third and final time that afternoon, the audience rose to acknowledge De Silva and especially Itzhak Perlman, who is both a consummate musician AND performer, and who has transcended the stratified classifications of “elite” vs. “popular” in great service to modern American culture. As the woman behind me tapped her foot to Perpetuum Mobile, I felt grateful that in this day of superficial reality TV heroes and fabricated personas, “celebrity” is not always a dirty word.
Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculty of Longy School of Music and Boston Conservatory.