Dallas — At this point in his storied career, superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman can do anything he wants and still get a standing ovation. That’s pretty much what happened Sunday in the second concert of the Recital Series at the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Winspear Opera House. Perlman is one of the greats, but at 68, he is no longer on top of his technical game the way he was the last time I heard him in recital, when I was 11. Then, I idolized his absolute mastery of the instrument—he helped me understand the magical possibilities of the violin. He also taught me about overcoming obstacles—famously a polio survivor, he then used two crutches, and now uses a motorized scooter. Perlman is still charismatic and delightful to watch, and he still does many things well, but there are a lot of violinists that, famous name aside, we’d probably prefer to hear.
Perlman plays with a nonchalant insouciance that works great for encore pieces such as the Kreisler Sicilienne and Rigaudon and the Joachim arrangement of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1. He announced these and John Williams’ “Theme from Schindler’s List” from the stage at the end of the concert. His remarks were warm and funny, including the observation that the Kreisler piece was ostensibly in the style of François Francoeur, an 18th-century violinist and composer, but because it’s Kreisler, “whatever style it is, it’s Viennese.” Truth.
When Perlman isn’t playing something that needs careful attention to musical interpretation, as in the Kreisler and the Brahms, when he can just let loose and have fun, he sounds great. Both pieces showed off his effortless flying spiccato to advantage, and he could connect with the audience on them, mugging a bit when throwing off a particularly difficult passage.
The three sonatas on the printed program were more problematic. The Beethoven Sonata No. 8 in G Major, Op. 30 No. 3, includes many sforzandos, typical of Beethoven’s style, and Perlman sounded as if he were jabbing at them rather than merely accenting them, as well as chopping off many phrase endings. Also troublesome: pianist Rohan De Silva had the Winspear’s Steinway on the short stick throughout the evening, muffling the sound considerably. This was especially an issue in the Beethoven: he wrote the Opus 30 sonatas “for piano with violin accompaniment.” The piano, not the violin, should be most prominent, and that simply was not the case in this performance.
De Silva was always distinctly the accompanist, not the equal collaborator, and certainly never the dominant of the two musicians. After all, the large crowd at the Winspear was there to hear Perlman. Indeed, De Silva’s biography wasn’t even printed in the original program. Ushers handed out photocopied addenda during intermission that included his bio.
The Franck Sonata in A Major showed one of Perlman’s best skills—his continuous, effortless vibrato creates a clean, unbroken melodic line rather than a series of discrete notes. On the other hand, this particular sonata, with its extreme emotional intensity, should absolutely rip our hearts out. Never mind the A Major key; the violinist and pianist should have us pining for lost love and missed opportunity by the end of this sonata, and Perlman and De Silva never took us there.
Last on the printed program, before playing the three encore pieces, was Debussy’s Sonata in G Minor. This sonata requires lightness and delicacy, and Perlman’s playing is still impressive when he wants it to be—the absolute security of his left hand, able to find any note out of thin air, and his right hand, which can achieve an amazing lightness off the string, especially extraordinary given Perlman’s legendary huge hands. More often, though, his performance of the Debussy came across as sloppy.
The crowd was adoring and enthusiastic, providing him with standing ovations after each of the last four—yes four—pieces. He’s still a beloved superstar. He just no longer sounds like he did when I was 11.