At Itzhak Perlman’s recital, familiarity breeds content

November 24, 2014 at 12:45 pm

By David Wright

Itzhak Perlman and pianist Rohan De Silva performed Sunday at Symphony Hall, an event presented by the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres

Attending an Itzhak Perlman recital is like going to a restaurant that is famous for its desserts.  The other courses may be okay, but they’re not what you’re there for.

Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall, in a presentation of Celebrity Series of Boston, the noted violinist and his piano collaborator Rohan De Silva served up nutritious helpings of Vivaldi, Schumann, Beethoven and Ravel, to warm applause.  But it was the last third of the concert—the “Additional works to be announced from the stage,” as the printed program said –that turned up the heat in the filled-to-capacity hall.

As he has done in recitals for decades, Perlman in effect went to the encores early.  Freed from the straitjacket of intellectual classical forms, he introduced and played the pieces that showed off the things that many listeners love best about him: his sweet silvery tone, his dazzling technique, and not least, his engaging way of talking to an audience.

The event was like the Jascha Heifetz recitals of old, but without the Heifetz hauteur.  It began with Vivaldi’s Violin Sonata in A major, Op. 2, No. 2, RV 31—very presentable, sensitive in the Adagio and lively in the fast movements, and played as if the last fifty years of early-music performance never happened.  The piano tone was plush, the violin light and ingratiating, more like Fritz Kreisler’s elegant fake baroque pieces than the half-crazy “red priest” of Venice.

Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 offered a more Romantic canvas for the duo to color in, and here Perlman’s way of tugging on a phrase one moment and scampering over the strings the next served the music well, although it didn’t probe very much into the shadows of this composer’s complex personality.  Playing the music on a high-pitched instrument, instead of the darker mid-range ones (clarinet, with viola or cello as alternatives) for which it was written, probably didn’t help.

It was in the Schumann that one first became aware that pianist De Silva, whose rank among “collaborative pianists” is as lofty as Perlman’s among violinists, was a proficient and musical player who, on this afternoon at least, hadn’t quite shaken the old role of “accompanist.”

Playing with the piano lid propped open only slightly—wide open is standard for duo recitals these days—De Silva tended to toil in the background, so that his part burbled when it could have sparkled, murmured when it could have sung.

De Silva did rise to the occasion from time to time in the Schumann, where crackling imitative passages flung the two instruments against each other, and in the next work on the program, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2, where such passages are more the rule than the exception.

The duo’s playing in the Beethoven, while never less than spirited, remained on something of an even keel.  Perlman’s cool, no-problem demeanor, so effective when he is tossing off a jaw-dropping virtuoso passage, left one a little frustrated here, wishing he and his partner would enter more into the fist-shaking, middle-period, C-minor Beethoven of this sonata.

Bright spots in this performance included artful, tender phrasing by Perlman in the Adagio cantabile, a zestful scherzo with flashes of wit, and a finale that began a little lackadaisically but built to an exciting finish that sent the audience to intermission with a smile.

Ravel is, in many ways, the un-Beethoven, and his Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major depends for its effect not on sudden contrasts but on ever-changing harmonic colors.  Whatever their other virtues, the two artists on Sunday were not outstanding colorists, and when Ravel’s harmonies began to float, they sounded somewhat adrift.

Still, the sonata’s last two movements, “Blues” and “Perpetuum mobile,” are sure-fire when proficiently played, and the duo did not disappoint here.  One can’t say definitively whether Ravel’s blues should sound more like French music or more like African-American music, but a case could certainly be made for this pair’s continentally elegant slides and strumming.  And Perlman easily dispatched the lightning-fast scales and string crossing of the perpetual-motion finale—a little too easily, maybe, so that the point became razzle-dazzle rather than the music’s content.

Still, as the “additional works” got under way, there seemed to be a feeling that the old razzle doesn’t quite dazzle as much in an era when, as the flutist James Galway once told this writer, “these young kids are playing everything I do, faster and in thirds.”

After selecting Kreisler’s Siciliano (in the Style of Francoeur)  from a thick stack of scores on the piano—drawing some audience chuckles in the process—Perlman said to the audience, “My computer printout says I’ve played this piece in Boston eight times.  Would you like to hear it a ninth time?”

The affirmative applause sounded, to this listener at least, just a bit halfhearted.  In fact, a feeling of “the ninth time” hovered over the whole occasion.  Mr. Perlman will perform his feats, or a credible version thereof.  The audience will give him a standing ovation.  Been here, done this.

Still, the “additionals” offered much to enjoy.  If Kreisler’s idea of baroque music sounded a little corny, Perlman still delighted with his deft mixture of legato and staccato in the fast variation.  His interpretation of the Chopin-Kreisler Mazurka in A minor would make you swear Chopin was Jewish.

A Presto by Poulenc—a Heifetz favorite, as Perlman noted—sounded both brilliant and droll, if not quite as superhuman as when the old man played it.

In Perlman’s performance, John Williams’s Schindler’s List theme was wonderfully simple and affecting, and easily the best tune of the day.  (Yet even this piece, surely Perlman’s biggest “hit single,” drew only mild audience reaction, both when announced and at its conclusion.)

It was during the additionals that De Silva showed what being a world-class “collaborative pianist” is all about, as he seemed to inhabit Perlman’s mind, breathing with him and mirroring his tiniest whims as he traversed those brilliant, capricious, sentimental little pieces.

The duo closed the program with Sevilla by Albéniz, in a nicely varied performance, graceful, volatile, and passionate by turns.  The audience stood and clapped, calling the pair back for an actual encore, Wieniawski’s finger-tangling Etude-Caprice in A minor, Op. 18, No. 4.

Then, in contrast with other artists’ recent recitals that encored on into the night, performers and audience seemed content to call it a day, without dipping any further into that stack of music on the piano.  Fast pieces played, check.  Tender sentiments expressed, check.  Encore demanded and granted, check.  Happy to be here—see you at the tenth time.

The next event of the Celebrity Series of Boston will be What Makes It Great? with Rob Kapilow and Voices Boston in Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, 8 p.m. December 5 at NEC’s Jordan Hall.; 617-482-6661.

The next concert of the Celebrity Series of Boston will be Inon Barnatan, piano, 8 p.m. December 10 at Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall.; 617-482-6661.

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