Itzhak Perlman was greeted by unusually huge applause while - aided by two crutches - he slowly walked across the stage to start his Barbican recital. Judging by the warm reception, the violinist could have done no wrong for his devoted audience. In the event, Perlman and pianist Bruno Canino did not disappoint.
Perlman was seated in front of the piano in a straight line with Canino, as if to indicate visually that their music making was a united venture. Of course, with his paralysed legs, Perlman had no choice but to sit. Nevertheless, this arrangement might make musical sense for all violin/piano duos (as it proved, beyond doubt, when pianist András Schiff and violinist Gábor Takács-Nagy performed during the June 2007 Bartók mini-festival in the Queen Elizabeth Hall).
It may be politically incorrect to mention it, but I find it amazing how Perlman dragged his significant body weight on to the stage with the aid of his hands (controlling his crutches) and then proceeded to play virtuoso violin passages to perfection. I would have thought that his hands needed some rest but clearly I was wrong.
The opening item of the evening, Schubert's Rondo brilliant in B minor, started with a virtuoso violin passage which in Perlman's performance sounded like a chain of beautiful pearls. The partnership between violinist and pianist was exemplary (as it was during the whole evening). Perlman is not afraid to allow extra time for lyrical phrases and he sings on the violin as if he was a real singer. (I recall him singing the bass part of the jailer in a concert performance of Tosca many years ago.) He also allows time for chords, which inevitably take longer to sound on the violin than far too many violinists realise. Perlman utilises the whole length of his bow; again, this is not as usual with violinists as it should be. There was not a single forced note either from the violinist or the pianist; the transitions between themes and interludes were tasteful as well as magical. The charm of the Viennese theme and the flavour of the Hungarian dance were convincingly demonstrated.
Perlman's and Canino's account of Beethoven's Violin Sonata in F major Op. 23 'Spring' was a masterclass in score reading and superlative taste. Staccato notes were treated with grace, sforzando notes meant points of direction (rather than ugly forced sounds). The harmonic function of notes - such as the first note of the slow movement - was meaningful, every note and phrase had a story to tell. Dynamic markings were observed in the context of tonality, a piano in a minor modulation was very different from a major appearance. Perlman's treatment of the pizzicato chords drew attention to them: appropriately, as this was the composition where Beethoven used pizzicato chords for the first time in a violin sonata.
In Perlman's and Canino's hands, Richard Strauss' Sonata in E flat major, Op.18 sounded like a great work. Just looking at the score, I might have not noticed this piece's excellent qualities. Although the composition dates from when Strauss was less than 25 years of age, this was the composer's last chamber music piece. Perhaps Strauss, too, failed to notice what Perlman and Canino saw? They added performance attributes even when they were not marked, such as rallentandi and slight rubati. In the first movement there is a melody for the pianist marked espressivo; during the first four bars the violinist plays one note throughout. Perlman played this sustained long note with full commitment and lyricism. At the beginning of the second movement - Improvisation, Andante Cantabile - he produced a daring but tasteful slide from upbeat to downbeat over the interval of a sixth, thus setting the tone for the Viennese mood. I can't help but think that the performance of the third movement - Finale - might have been better than the music itself. Not only did the artists demonstrate deep insight, for instance into the conversation-like exchanges of light motives, but they created art even from the technical passages.
The short pieces following the sonatas strengthened Perlman's already close rapport with his audience. Here Perlman the entertainer shared the platform with Perlman the virtuoso violinist. Apparently making up his mind about which of the pieces he should choose from his thick folder, Perlman took the opportunity to share his sense of humour and joy with all of us. Suddenly the Barbican Hall felt like a small room filled with intimate friends. And Perlman's rendering of the pieces, which were mostly composed for the late nineteenth century/early twentieth century virtuoso, was breath-taking. His performance of the last piece, Perpetu mobile by Franz Ries, was a testament not only to Perlman's virtuosity but also to his amazing energy. He looked and played as if he would have been happy to continue for the rest of the night. If only he had!
By Agnes Kory
Read recent concert reviews, including a recital by Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Wagner Rarities at the Royal Opera House, here.