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Friday, October 04, 2013

The Perlman Touch

From the Classical Archives Dept.: It’s always a good time to celebrate Itzhak Perlman, so let’s visit a concert he gave at Proctors in Schenectady back in 2004. Here’s my review:


WHAT MY BE MOST AMAZING about Itzhak Perlman’s performance presence is that he’s able to convey to each member of the audience – if I may speak for the 2700-some who filled Proctor’s Theatre for a recital last week – a sense of living-room intimacy. His sound doesn’t come across as unusually big; it doesn’t seem overly intense. But it engages you in a conversation more compelling than what you’d get from any recording.

Itzhak Perlman and Rohad DeSilver
Photo by David Bazemore
The program was simple: sonatas by Bach, Beethoven and Poulenc, but drawn from a neglected edge of the repertory. The Bach sonata was not one of the more commonly performed solo works but the sixth for violin and continuo, a piece written and revised during the 1720s and existing in three forms. Its usual configuration is a five-movement work that includes a solo allegro for the keyboard.

Perlman and pianist Rohan DeSilva adopted a convincing middle ground between purist Baroque technique and a full-out Romantic approach. Perlman’s tone was lean but warm, true to the spirit of Bach but light on ornamentation. In the hands of an accomplished player like DeSilva, there’s no argument about the appropriateness of the piano to a work like this one. Rooted in the style of the trio sonata, it calls upon the pianist to do the work of two. 

By the time Beethoven got around to writing violin sonatas, the partnership was beginning to level out. His Sonata No. 7 in C Minor was written in 1802, just before the “Eroica” symphony, while the composer was bitterly wrestling with his deafness. It opens forebodingly with a six-note motif that would return, transmuted into F Major, as the glorious beginning of the Symphony No. 8, but here it’s a fragment that sets a mode that gives this work a fascinating texture. Although in four standard movements work, it’s already breaking out of the Classical mode with the witty wrong-seeming turns typical of Beethoven.

These contrasts may not be so apparent to contemporary ears, but Perlman and DeSilva exaggerated nothing in their pursuit of the integrity of the piece, which rewards all the attention you can give to it. Like the Bach, it’s a work that’s more often found in a “complete sonatas” recording than on the concert stage, but the players proved its power in person.

More ear-taxing is Francis Poulenc’s single Sonata, but that’s only because of the plangent surprises so typical of the composer’s works. Written in 1943 and revised six years later, it was dedicated to the short-lived virtuoso Ginette Neveu, whose recordings reveal a keen sensitivity to this kind of work.

Not that Perlman had any problem realizing it fully. Like Mozart’s sonatas, it’s really a series of opera arias, and the performers sang them wonderfully. What sounds choppy and discordant in the first movement is smoothed into a long, lyrical line in the second; by the end of the piece, a Presto that sounds like Mendelssohn with neuralgia, the startled audience had been won over. Maybe we’ll get the Schoenberg Sonata some day.

The rest of the concert was music and comedy. Perlman introduced a series of short pieces with wicked puns, well-constructed groaners I won’t attempt to repeat delivered with seasoned assurance. And the pieces themselves tended toward the virtuosic, showing off Perlman’s effortless ability to quickly negotiate bow and fingerboard.

Aleksander Zarzycki’s Mazurka, Op. 26, was a popular fingerbuster in the days of Maud Powell, so it was a treat to have it exhumed. False harmonics and left-hand pizzicato were two of the dazzling effects the piece demands. Tchaikovsky’s “Chanson sans paroles” showed off the violinist’s sweet side, while Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of DvoÍák’s Slavonic Dance No. 1 was both lyrical and technique-demanding. The program finished – with the audience on its feet – with Franz Ries’s “Perpetuum mobile,” Op. 34 #5, another little-heard but lots-of-fun showstopper.

This is what live music is all about – contrasting, compelling, and aimed, it seems, at you alone, while bringing all of the audience together in a life-changing experience. I know I went out of there different person.

Itzhak Perlman, violinist, and Rohan DeSilva, pianist
Proctor’s Theatre, Jan. 8

Metroland Magazine, 15 January 2004

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