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Itzhak Perlman

by B.A. Nilsson on March 6, 2014

Itzhak Perlman
Proctors, Mainstage, March 1

 

There’s a published edition of Bazzini’s “Round of the Goblins” that reads, “For the player who has mastered all technical difficulties, because they’re all there in this brief violin showpiece. Not only must your left hand keep up with the brilliant passagework, those fingers also have to pluck strings, finger two strings at once for double-stops, finger a cascade of tenths, which is almost anatomically impossible, finger two strings at once for double trills, which puts all four fingers in simultaneous action and finger two strings at once for double false harmonics, the explanation of which would frighten you.”

If that’s not enough, there’s an entirely gratuitous but effect moment when an F is sounded on each of the fiddle’s four strings—the same F, starting low on the E string but sending the left hand up, up, up, until it’s so near the bridge that there’s almost no fingerboard under it.

Meanwhile, the bow is flying, skittering, trembling, all of it coordinated to the microsecond with what the left hand’s fingers are doing. From a performer’s standpoint, it’s a tightrope act demanding, beyond the technical mastery, total commitment. To the audience, it’s as impressive to witness as it is to hear.

“Everybody plays this,” said Itzhak Perlman, “and they play it well. But I’ll play it anyway.” And the goblins danced with a dazzling surety of purpose. Everybody may try to play this piece, but only the finest players crest the most of the technical hurdles, and Perlman’s account was brilliant. Especially coming, as it did, at the finish of a taxing program.

After which the audience, inexplicably, got up and left. They gave Perlman and pianist Rohan de Silva one call, and then they were done. They easily could have won another encore or two.

Does bedtime beckon the superannuated audience? Few empty seats were to be seen in Proctors, and this without Perlman announcing the program until days before the event. So it was a star-power draw. Nothing wrong with that. With any luck, those unfamiliar with the music will seek other such concerts.

Those familiar with the music—or at least with concert-going–know the fusty conventions. You don’t applaud between movements. You save the ovation until the end of the show. Your candy wrappers—well, no power on earth will stop people from unwrapping candies during concerts.

The reverential silence is a product of the Wagner era, and there’s a lot to be said for it. But that also was an era when this kind of music was more a part of everyday life, which increased when recordings brought star performers into the home. Commercial media long since has deserted classical music; schools have abandoned it is a cultural currency. As Liam Dunn said in Blazing Saddles: “You’re on your own.”

Perlman’s recital featured both the Sonata in A Major by Cesar Franck and a couple of brief, lively Hungarian Dances by Brahms, proving that good programming offers contrasting weights and colors.

Speaking of colors: that Franck sonata has become such a staple of the violin recital that I almost dread having to hear it again. Perlman and de Silva straightened me out. It’s an intricately constructed piece, weaving a handful of melodic motifs throughout its four contrasting movements, and the coloration the performers gave it was breathtakingly distinctive, a result achieved in the place where tone quality and interpretive gesture, dynamics and rhythm blend into an ineffable whole.

The third movement, marked Recitative-Fantasia, starts as a deceptively restful reminiscence of what’s come before braiding the material into what will be tossed about canonically in the fourth and final movement, and it was here that I found myself losing all sense of sitting in a concert hall—a rare experience for me.

Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” sonata, which opened the second half, was reworked by violinist Fritz Kreisler into something even more technically challenging than the original, including an original cadenza at the end that took the concept of double trills (which set all four left-hand fingers flying) into seemingly unplayable places, and that sound awful when they’re not negotiated with the deftness Perlman gave them.

But by then, Perlman was fully settled into a groove. There were a few shaky moments in the program’s opening work, Beethoven’s Mozart-like Sonata No. 3, but the rest of the evening gave us a fiddler fully in control.

Keeping with Kreisler, Perlman encored the Tartini with a “Tempo di menuetto” that Kreisler for a while passed off as the work of Pugnani, Joseph Joachim’s arrangements of his buddy Brahms’ first two Hungarian Dances, Tchaikovsky’s “Chason sans paroles” (introduced with the Perlman’s dry humor) and, finally, the Bazzini.

Today’s violin soloists display a level of technical mastery like never before; Perlman reminds us that such mastery thrives on—and best succeeds with—the soul and maturity only the very finest performers bring to their work.