Perlman scolds, cajoles, and charms Kravis audience
Itzhak Perlman was part raconteur, teacher and etiquette scold Monday night at his recital before a sold-out hall at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, but in the middle of all that the Israeli-born violinist managed to be a good advocate for an early work of Messiaen.
Perlman played the French composer’s Theme and Variations, written in 1932, not once but twice in the second half of his program. “I’m telling you, it’s a terrific piece,” he said, and then suggested that he and pianist Rohan de Silva might repeat it.
But first he had to gently upbraid the audience for its initial lukewarm response to the relatively brief work, which ends with a long diminuendo that expires at the bottom of the violin and piano registers. “Tell me something: Was it really that bad that half of you didn’t want to clap?” Perlman said, then advised them on good concert manners, which involves applause even after you hear something you don’t like.
Dutifully chastened, the audience gave the second iteration of the Messiaen a warm reception, and truth to tell the work came off even better in the repeat rendition. It begins with a theme and mood reminiscent of the late Violin Sonata of Debussy, and at one point in the variations migrates in the piano to a harmonic sequence that evokes the older composer’s Voiles. But the concluding fifth variation, a series of long, slow notes in the violin over clanging, changing chords in the piano, looks forward to Messiaen’s own Quartet for the End of Time.
Perlman’s friendly-ambassador public persona always makes me forget that he does not play with the big, hyperemotional style that sort of PR might indicate. His sound is intensely focused but somewhat narrow, and quite well-suited to French music. His Messiaen was admirable for its clean lines, its delicately traced passagework, and its sober communicative power. De Silva, a Sri Lankan-born pianist who did first-rate work all evening, was a subtle, elegant accompanist.
The first half of the concert featured an adequate if underwhelming reading of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. Perlman obviously knows his way around the piece, and much of it was fine: the very opening bars of this enormous work, and the third, minor-key variation of the second. But he had noticeable tuning problems in the variations, particularly in the high-stepping, bravura second, and was unable to bring off its closing phrase with proper intonation, in any of its repeats.
What was missing here overall was that great Beethovenian sense of breadth, creative surprise and drama. The climbing theme that comes to dominate the second half of the first movement, for example, should in its last violin pronouncements be joyful, expansive, exuberant. Perlman played it forcefully, but too cautiously, and without that feeling of the skies opening wide out in front of the music that Beethoven’s narrative demands.
The concert opened with one of George Frideric Handel’s violin sonatas (No. 13 in D, HWV 371), and in this work, Perlman’s tight sound was a benefit, especially in the Larghetto, which came across with a lovely, chaste melancholy. The rest of the work was played with careful control and a modest outlook, though not without a sense of inner vigor (the fugal Allegro and the bustling sixteenth notes of the two fast movements) that helped enliven things.
The violinist played four encores after the two Messiaens, chatting amiably with the audience as he did so. Fritz Kreisler’s Tempo di Menuetto (in the style of Gaetano Pugnani, “a composer who was a legend in his own home,” Perlman wisecracked) came first, then the Troika of the violinist-pedagogue Felix Winternitz (1872-1948). In both of these salon pieces, Perlman was more engaged as a player, tearing into Kreisler’s fine little piece with real verve. The Winternitz bagatelle has a seductive folksong-like Russian tune as its centerpiece, and this, too, came off with life and warmth.
Perlman also played the next encore, John Williams’ theme from the movie Schindler’s List, with restraint and beauty, and ended with a Kreisler arrangement of a two-violin etude by the Polish composer and virtuoso Henryk Wieniawski (Op. 18, No. 4). Intonation problems were evident in the higher reaches of this familiar saltarello, and it ended up sounding messy rather than sparkling, but there was a roar of acclamation afterward from the huge audience, which in any case Perlman had in the palm of his hand all night.
Greg Stepanich has covered classical music, theater and dance for 25 years at newspapers in Illinois, West Virginia and Florida. He worked for 10 years at The Palm Beach Post, where he was an assistant business editor and pilot of Classical Musings, a classical music blog. He now blogs for the Palm Beach ArtsPaper at www.pbartspaper.com, and writes a personal blog at classicalgreg.wordpress.com. He also works as a freelance writer and composer.
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Tue Jan 13, 2009
at 5:20 pm