, July 2009
Itzhak Perlman recorded Prokofiev’s First Concerto with Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the BBC Orchestra for Angel October 23–25, 1980; the live performance included in Medici Arts’s collection of Perlman’s performances therefore preceded it by only a day. Perlman sounds as sumptuous as he did live in the mid 1990s and plays with the same ingratiating warmth. Of course, along with that warmth and communicativeness comes lots of grimacing, a kind of physiognomic virtuosity that Heifetz called “funny business.” Concerning matters more directly relevant, in a Concerto that requires a great deal of starch, while Perlman’s staccatos, produced with a loose wrist and arm, don’t seem either brittle or crisp, they don’t detract from the performance’s tartness. Perlman deftly shifts moods between the violence of the middle part of the first movement and its ethereal ending. Oistrakh championed Prokofiev’s quizzical work in Russia, as did Szigeti in the West; in the Scherzo, Perlman fused Oistrakh’s warmth and Szigeti’s angularity. It’s been said that, despite the Scherzo, the work as a whole can’t really be described as a virtuoso concerto, but Perlman’s brilliance in the Scherzo challenges that judgment, demonstrating just how much can be made of, for example, the slides on harmonics. At least after the opening bassoon solo, the final movement seems in this performance more arch overall than in details. Perlman, for example, throws the staccatos at the change from moderato to allegro moderato from his wrist at the very heel of the bow, and while they’re hardly mushy, the visual impression they create doesn’t fit particularly well the timbral effect they create (by way of comparison, watch Christian Ferras play the similarly cocky passages in Stravinsky’s Concerto on EMI 90444, 27:6). Nevertheless, the whole movement sounds infectious, personalized by individual portamentos. (Perlman seems to be forced to wait for the Orchestra on a high trill in the finale at 20:58—it’s pretty neatly covered, and such things happen in live performance.)
The Elgar Concerto, recorded in Royal Albert Hall with the same conductor and orchestra almost a year later, almost makes an opposite impression. The majestic opening tutti, with its paragraph-length thematic ideas, has been called worthy of the Empire. Here it struts by rapidly. In fact, in comparison with Heifetz’s highly charged but fully Romantic version, Menuhin’s sensitive, deeply personal performances with Elgar from the 1930s or Boult more than 30 years later (not to mention Albert Sammons’s), and, more recently, with Kennedy’s two versions, Perlman’s seems almost perfunctory. While the performance lacks the hushed nostalgic sense that Philippe Graffin mentioned in 30:1 of an era about to pass away, and without the quintessential Englishness that Yehudi Menuhin described in explaining the second theme during a televised master class, Perlman still manages a sense of soaring warmth. Perhaps because the recorded sound tends to keep the soloist within the orchestral textures, Perlman seems to be fighting the massive forces that surround him. In this symphonic yet virtuosic Concerto, a violinist might either set out to conquer or simply concede and make the most of the work’s opportunities for deeply personal commentary (Elgar himself had been a violinist and must have embodied a great deal of himself in the solo part, whatever the meaning of the epigraph). And Perlman does play with a great deal of tenderness, if not the wistfulness listeners might ascribe to the piece in retrospect. The slow movement continues taut tempos. Kreisler, who “made” this piece, remained rhythmically alive in his performances of other works and never descended into schmaltz (even if he sometimes translated into highly idiomatic violinistic language some pieces of questionable musical value). Be that as it may, while in the second theme, Perlman provides some of his most redolent and majestic playing (as in the portamentos he introduces at the return of the main theme), he generally refuses to linger; and, providing no pauses to set up explosions, he creates an overall impression of aloofness. The promising passagework at the opening of the finale seems laborious here rather than stirring, its facile runs seemingly without destinations. Whether or not Kreisler learned the Concerto on the train without a violin in hand, the solo part’s technical demands, together with the massiveness of the orchestra, should fully extend any violinist who takes it up; Perlman, reading the part from music, certainly seems fully extended. Yet he’d recorded the work with Barenboim in the studio only five months earlier.
Saint-Saëns’s brilliant character piece from 1971 shows Perlman roughly a decade earlier, playing with the combination of bite, sparkle, and subtle nuance that made his reputation. The main theme is as impudent as in Heifetz’s version from 1935, and the second theme smolders. Technically, Perlman’s left hand seems more alert than it’s looked in later years. In all, I’d rather watch this performance than Heifetz’s in They Shall Have Music.
Offering views of Perlman in less frequently played repertoire (to what anniversaries do we owe this release?), Medici Arts’s collection should appeal to aficionados and historians of the violin as well as to general viewers, particularly for Prokofiev’s Concerto and Saint-Saëns’s warhorse. Strongly recommended overall.