By Robert Croan
A recital by Itzhak Perlman is inevitably a journey into perfection: virtuosity of the highest order, the sweetest tone imaginable, impeccable intonation, absolutely even scalework, mature musicianship and a pleasant stage persona to boot.
At 71, the superstar Israeli-born violinist continues to provide all this and more in large measure. It would seem that a wrong note or misplaced accent just wouldn’t dare to enter the biosphere when Perlman is on stage.
Perlman’s recital Thursday at the Broward Center’s Au-Rene Theater, with his longtime collaborator, the superb Sri Lankan pianist Rohan de Silva, culminated in a spectacular rendition of Ravel’s magnificent Second Violin Sonata that would be hard to match for its technical accomplishment or interpretive acumen.
This flawlessness comes at a price: safe programming that shies away from anything that might offend the untrained ear, and a bland predictability that might be described as an unending diet of musical comfort food.
There’s nothing bland about Perlman’s violinistic fireworks, of course. In a sequence of five encore-like bon-bons that followed the printed part of the program, Perlman gave his enthusiastic audience some truly amazing feats of virtuosity: an elegantly played minuet in baroque style by Kreisler, a transcription of an aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin that successfully emulated the emotion qualities of the human voice, a dazzling caprice by Wieniawski, John Williams’ syrupy theme from Schindler’s List, and to conclude, a rousing Spanish dance extracted from Falla’s opera La vida breve.
It’s a disturbing commentary on the state of classical music, however, that aside from the brief movie extract, the most recent work offered by the greatest violinist of his generation – the Ravel Sonata – was premiered in 1927.
His program followed the typical old-fashioned recital formula. Perlman warmed up (as if he needed to warm up) on an 18th-century sonata, in this case a quite delightful sonata (Op. 2, No. 2) by Vivaldi, which began with a playful prelude and corrente dance, and moved on to an expressive recitative-like adagio and an upbeat gigue finale.
It’s worth noting that Perlman always plays with the music in front of him at his recitals, even though he has played these pieces hundreds of times and must surely know them by heart. I’ve been told that the logic behind this is that sonatas are chamber music in which all the collaborators are equal and no one is a soloist, but no one would argue that the two performers are equal when one of them is Perlman.
This is not in any way to disparage de Silva’s consistently strong, colorful and digitally solid keyboard work, which allowed Perlman to show his métier, but it was, in fact, a soloist’s evening.
It would be hard to find fault with even a single measure of Beethoven’s early Violin Sonata No. 1 (Op. 12, No. 1). The two players gave a strong statement of the themes in opening movement and a particularly endearing account of the Andante with variations, especially the songful slow variation that led into the lively rondo-finale.
The first half closed with Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces (Op. 75) – three short works originally composed for clarinet and piano, each allowing the soloist to create a fleeting emotional world of its own.
At the start of the second half, Perlman warned the audience that there would be some jazz sounds in the Ravel Sonata – not to go home after the second movement. Ravel was fascinated by American jazz. He labeled the work’s middle movement “Blues,” with a few slides and “blue notes” to emulate the then-novel sounds. Ravel met George Gershwin a year after the premiere of this work, and when the younger composer asked to study with him, Ravel refused, saying, “better to write good Gershwin than bad Ravel.”
But the work contains so much more than the jazz experiment: a quirky opening Allegretto in which the two instruments seem at odds with each other but miraculously mesh, and a tour-de-force perpetual motion finale. Here, De Silva became a true collaborator, adding a plethora of pianistic color and an interplay of musical minds. In all, the Ravel performance was about as good as it gets.