Many consider Israeli-American Itzhak Perlman to be one of the greatest violinists of all time on record—certainly his discography is impressively wide-ranging, including Bach’s unaccompanied violin works, Classical and Romantic sonatas, all the major violin concertos and a number of film scores. He is perhaps most popularly known today for his haunting solos on the soundtrack to the 1993 Spielberg film Schindler’s List, where he reflects his own Jewish roots to great effect in John Williams’s Klezmer-inspired score.
Having initially taught himself on a toy fiddle and a tiny violin, Perlman began formal tuition with Rivka Goldgart at the Tel Aviv Academy. Poliomyelitis afflicted him at the age of four, resulting in a permanent disability; because of this, he has to play seated, but has not been hindered in either his musical education or his adult emergence as a musician of admirable talent. Following a further programme of conventional training with Dorothy DeLay and Ivan Galamian at The Juilliard School, and some early broadcasts and concert appearances in the US (including his Carnegie Hall début), Perlman was promoted by impresario Sol Hurok, taking Europe by storm in the season of 1967–1968 and securing his position on the international concert stage with the admiration of thousands. Rather like Menuhin, Perlman has used his worldwide celebrity to transcend political boundaries with his art: with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra he made ground-breaking appearances in Warsaw and Budapest (1987), Russia (1990) and China (1994).
Popular with colleagues because of his friendly character, in his interpretative skills Perlman draws on the warmth of his personality and the strength of his technique to produce a sound with instant appeal. It is perhaps because of these communicative qualities that he has been chosen as a soloist for a significant number of film soundtracks.
Perlman’s sound has, in many ways, defined a generation of musicians. His tone—of exceptional richness and power—is, as one might expect, transmitted via an approach which places the fine control and liberal use of vibrato as its pre-eminent characteristic; but this approach would lack meaning and context without Perlman’s powerfully-articulated bowing, frequent use of percussive accentuation and thus the production of a sound that is not saccharine but, perhaps, similar in its bitter sweetness to Isaac Stern’s (if built upon rather surer and more predictable technical foundations). It is this combination—the steely edge to an otherwise full-bodied beautiful tone—that has made Perlman such a successful recording artist. Perhaps as a gesture of pride in his Jewish heritage, Perlman has recorded a considerable quantity of Klezmer music, as exemplified here by Seating the Bride (Kale Bazetsn) with the Klezmer Conservatory Band and Honga performed with The Klezmatics (2005), where he appears entirely comfortable with this unique idiom.
On record it is Perlman’s performances of nineteenth- and twentieth-century music that are perhaps most successful. In Baroque repertoire, such as the Bach B minor Partita (1986), or Vivaldi’s ‘L’inverno’ concerto from the ‘Four Seasons’ (2003), where he does dispense with the modern conductor, directing the performance himself from the violin, he makes few other concessions to the period instrument movement (upon which subject he has written in the past in disparaging terms). Not that this diminishes his effectiveness. The Bach Partita is powerfully articulated (especially the Bourrée) but there is a slightly heavy-handed approach to the sound, and some of this could be rather more consciously phrased. The Vivaldi concerto is happier in the outer movements (the Largo being somewhat soggy and slow in a post-war style), but is too regular rhythmically. The Mozart and Beethoven sonatas selected here are full of energy and enthusiasm and testify to the success and deserved popularity of Perlman’s long-standing collaborations with Ashkenazy and Barenboim. The Beethoven Op. 96 (1975) is exciting, Perlman tapping into the epic scale and drama of the work, but the Mozart is not to everybody’s taste, both players seeming to prioritise tonal beauty over structure and architecture, thus rather down-playing the small-scale phrasing. Some may, of course, love the immaculate tone and musicianship, others may find this rather dull.
Certainly, ‘dullness’ is not something to be levelled at Perlman’s early performances, such as the 1966 recording of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 under Leinsdorf, or indeed the Op. 94bis Sonata with Ashkenazy (1969). Indeed, Perlman excels in this repertoire, the richness and depth of his tone combining with the clarity of his accentuation to bring forth a highly suitable biting quality to this impassioned, post-Romantic music.
As might be expected, Perlman’s large discography includes standard concertos—such as the fine Tchaikovsky (1967) and Barber (1994) selected here. The latter invites comparison with Stern’s famous 1964 recording: what Perlman lacks in the ultimate frisson of excitement, he more than makes up for in the assuredness and depth of his tone.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)