Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A visit with Uncle Itzhak

There isn't much to say anymore about Itzhak Perlman (at left). Not really. He long ago reached a level of technique that kind of beggars description, and renders criticism mute.

He knows it, too. Perlman's all too aware he's a grand master in the old style, now in a perpetual victory lap around the globe, the kind of attraction that musical people bring their ten-year-olds to see, just as their parents did with Pavarotti or Horowitz. And so he relaxes, and has a little fun, as he did at last weekend's sell-out Celebrity Series concert at Symphony Hall. After all, he's got nothing left to prove.

This attitude - or rather the marketing behind it - bent the Globe's Jeremy Eichler all out of shape, but I didn't much mind. Because to be honest, even if Perlman's style has congealed a bit, and he isn't pushing the envelope anymore, even if a quarter of his performance at Symphony was decided on at the last minute, then obviously tossed off (although brilliantly tossed off), he's hardly slumming, as Pavarotti often did. Nor has he become at all cynical or bored (as Horowitz sometimes seemed).

Indeed, Perlman is only too eager to show his audience a good time. And yes, bask in their admiration for doing that so effortlessly. True, he is hardly a selfless devotee to music; indeed, the spotlight is rather obviously on him rather than the music - much less his pianist, the amiable (and able) Rohan de Silva, who in only one or two pieces was treated as a true partner rather than an accompanist.

But Perlman is still a magician, and still able to do literally anything he wants to on his ravishing Strad. And truth be told, sometimes the music was the focus of the concert, and when that happened, only a fool would pretend that the performance was anything less than stunning. The opening Mozart was elegant and lightly plush, if a bit brisk (Perlman tended to keep his foot on the pedal throughout the concert); it was the following Franck sonata that was something of a revelation. The piece may be Franck's most popular, and for good reason: it's a strange, sprawling triumph that's both harmonically and melodically dense and structurally almost too bizarre to be called a "sonata"; the third movement alone seems to come to more than one crashing climax before righting itself with newly lustrous variations on its set of themes. For once, de Silva held his ground as an equal partner to Perlman - indeed, Franck may be more this pianist's forte than the violinist's. Nevertheless, Perlman's playing seemed to open up in the Franck; the tempos seemed just right, the tone appropriately lush; together, Perlman and de Silva held the audience spellbound (even Eichler had to admit he liked this one).

Alas, the Debussy sonata that followed (which is famously the composer's last composition) proved disappointing. Perlman seemed disinterested in its quirky mysteries, and his playing was fast and loose. But one dud doesn't ruin a concert. What came next amounted to a long encore, with Perlman shuffling through sheet music right there on stage, looking for something we in Boston might not have heard before. The schtick was actually charming - Perlman came off as an affectionate uncle to about 3,000 different people, and after all, why shouldn't classical music be a casual affair among friends?

The chosen works turned out to be (surprise, surprise) mostly light showpieces for the violin (by Kreisler, Heifetz, and the usual suspects) in which the piano played, well, second fiddle. Still, the Kreisler (a "chanson" in the style of Couperin) was gorgeous, and Perlman threw in a spirited take on one of Brahms's Hungarian Dances, too. Even the theme from Schindler's List sounded lovely (and made one wish John Williams could work it into a richer musical structure). By the end of the performance, the sense of affection between Perlman and his public was palpable; we could have gone on listening to him forever. And is that so wrong?