Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Another sublime afternoon with Uncle Itzhak

Perlman in action in New York.
I came to Itzhak Perlman's Celebrity Series appearance at Symphony Hall last weekend after a series of disappointing experiences at the theatre, and so the concert felt like a long, wonderful wash of aesthetic balm. I think by now Mr. Perlman needs no introduction; the virtuosity of his musicianship is pretty much an accepted fact.  (And perhaps it's some consolation, I think, in these days of decay and dissolution, to remember that there are still a few things on which we can all agree.)

Indeed, every time I've heard Perlman play, the same awed, grateful sensation seemed to ripple through the crowd as soon as his bow touched his instrument's strings. The only thing I can compare the moment to is the lighting of a candle in a darkened room; at once the entire hall is always stilled, as the separate attentions of thousands of people become focused on a single, sublime sensation emanating from the graying, bespectacled man and his violin.  Sometimes I think that as long as we're awed by superb technique, we can still call ourselves human.  (So how we'll hang onto our humanity after we've lost Itzhak Perlman I've no idea.)

Of course Perlman has his critics (the Globe's Jeremy Eichler among them) who are perhaps disturbed by the fact that he has long since become the star of his concerts; indeed, the music he plays is almost incidental; he could play "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and still fill Symphony Hall.  The virtuoso himself is obviously aware of this - although it must be added, he wears his stardom lightly.  He's hardly a diva - instead, Perlman has the dry warmth of that witty uncle who knows better than to take himself (or his music) too seriously - or rather too self-seriously.  Or at least that's the kind of affectionate avuncularity he manages to project as he runs through his encores - many of them simple showpieces by the likes of Kreisler - whom Perlman himself mocks lightly from the stage.

To be fair to Eichler's ilk, of course, I have to admit there are all kinds of odd formal questions bouncing around a Perlman star turn.  His sound is basically a sweetly lyrical distillation of late romantic, German style - and he doesn't change it much, whatever he's playing.  I don't mean he doesn't take the pieces he plays seriously; quite the contrary; his performances on Sunday were marvels of thoughtful nuance.  Yet he ran through a program of duets for violin and piano by Schubert, Brahms, and Saint-Saëns with hardly any variation in his core tone. Intriguingly, however, his accompanist, Rohan De Silva, proved something of a stylistic chameleon.  De Silva may lack his own interpretive profile; but his touch slid into the interpretive consensus behind Brahms, and then Saint-Saëns, with ease (only his Schubert didn't convince). If the program was at all differentiated in style, this was almost entirely due to him.

As I said, however, the opening Rondo (in B minor) from Schubert didn't quite cohere - although this may be because it represents Schubert trying not to sound too much like himself - his own masterpieces were rarely popular! - and so not sounding like anything too clearly at all.  The Brahms Sonata No. 2 was far better, although this was the one time I wished for more interpretive distinction from De Silva, as until the final movement the piano (which Brahms played himself, of course) does most of the musical heavy lifting.  Still, the last Allegretto grazioso, which features one of the master's most subtly ravishing melodies for violin, came off beautifully, with Perlman in his most transporting form.

Next came more Brahms - three of the Hungarian Dances (I think there are 21 in all, although we weren't told which of these Perlman was playing!), all of them indeed dancing with just the right mix of romantic feeling and fire.  But probably the triumph of the concert was the closing Sonata No. 1 in D minor from Saint-Saëns.  This is a curious piece, more in symphonic than sonata form, that somehow exudes the mysterious core of its sphinx-like composer's musical gift; pure, poised, and exploratory, with a sense of floating mood and sparkling intelligence (perhaps sans clear object), it's the kind of work that can drift from haunting melancholy to lively joy and back without ever quite settling on a single statement or stance.  And somehow Perlman (and De Silva) made its oppositions utterly compelling - for once, Perlman's technical and interpretive virtuosity were entirely in alignment.

And then came six encores - probably Isaac Albeniz’s Tango and Ries’s Perpetuum Mobile (described by Perlman as "one of Ries's pieces") came off best - with probably as many, or more, standing ovations. But I could have given him six more; indeed, when Perlman finally left the stage, I admit I found myself immediately hoping that Uncle Itzhak would be back to see us soon.

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