Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Itzhak Perlman Delights in Prioritizing his Encores

Last night violinist Itzhak Perlman returned to Davies Symphony Hall to give a recital as part of the Great Performers Series organized by the San Francisco Symphony. His accompanist for the evening was pianist Rohan De Silva, who has played frequently with Perlman in the past, including Perlman’s most recent visit to the White House in 2012. The bottom of the program sheet featured the sentence “Additional selections to be announced from the stage,” a polite way of saying that the brevity of the printed program would be balanced by a generous share of encores.

While it may seem peculiar to begin the discussion with encores, it is important to observe that they revealed Perlman at his most personable. While he could be very congenial when working with colleagues in any number of different capacities from symphonic to chamber, his “audience face” tended to be one that was “all business.” Now that he can enjoy “grand old man” status, his presentation of self to the audience has become somewhat relaxed. He even has a sense of humor that recalls a bit of Oscar Levant’s dry delivery.

More importantly, he does not haul out all of the “usual suspects” for his encores. Because he has the audience in the palm of his hand, he has no trouble pulling up unfamiliar pieces. While his first three (of five) encores were by Fritz Kreisler, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Henryk Wieniawski, there is a good chance that the pieces themselves were “first contact” experiences for much of the audience. Thus, the Kreisler selection was his “Tempo di Minuetto in the style of Pugnani.” (As was the case with many of Kreisler’s “in the style of” pieces, this was frequently taken, incorrectly, as Gaetano Pugnani’s own music.) This was followed by Leopold Auer’s arrangement of the aria that the young poet Lensky sings during the second act of Tchaikovsky’s Opus 24 opera Eugene Onegin, just before his duel with Onegin that results in his death. Then came a selection from Wieniawski’s Opus 8 collection of “Études-Caprices.” There were written for pedagogical purposes for two violins. The idea was that the student would play the difficult part while the teacher listened and accompanied with the simple part. Last night De Silva played a transcription of the simple part.

Perlman then settled back onto more familiar ground for his last two encores. The first of these was the theme music that John Williams composed for the film Schindler’s List (which Perlman had recorded for the film’s soundtrack). (Those familiar with film scores would be forgiven for calling Williams’ piece “Fantasy on a Break Section by Michel Legrand.”) He then concluded with Joseph Joachim’s transcription for violin and piano of the first of Johannes Brahms’ “Hungarian” dances (WoO 1).

In a curious way that final selection turned out to be a mirror of the very opening of the program. That transcription was one of the earliest (not the earliest) of the recordings that Jascha Heifetz made over his long career with RCA Victor. (The recording was made on September 16, 1920; and Heifetz began recording for Victor in 1917.) At the other end the program began with the second (in A major) of Antonio Vivaldi’s Opus 2 set of twelve sonatas for violin and continuo. Heifetz recorded this piece for Victor on February 21, 1934. (Heifetz tended to be more interested in the pre-Classical composers than were most of the listeners in his audiences.) This was followed by another major Heifetz achievement, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 24 (“Spring”) sonata in F major.

None of this is intended to suggest that Perlman wanted to present the audience with a “Heifetz evening;” but it is worth knowing that Heifetz used his reputation with Victor to provide greater awareness of the extended breadth of the violin repertoire, with the Baroque period at one end and composers who were Heifetz’ contemporaries at the other. As might be guessed, the present-day context of “historically-informed” performances made the Vivaldi selection sound a bit out of joint, but not so much that one would miss all the virtuosic demands that Vivaldi imposed and that Perlman breezed through as delightfully as the best of the “historical” interpreters. Instead, it was the Beethoven that was a bit on the weak side; but this had more to do with De Silva than with Perlman. Regular readers know by now that Beethoven’s title pages described his violin sonatas has having been written “for pianoforte and violin;” and De Silva was never quite assertive enough to allow the piano its own pride of place. The balance between the two instruments was much better realized with the last piece before the intermission, Robert Schumann’s Opus 73 set of three “fantasy pieces,” originally composed for clarinet. (Schumann himself directed that the clarinet part could be taken by a violin or a cello.)

The intermission was followed (and the encores were preceded) by Igor Stravinsky’s Suite italienne. This was a collection of movements from his score for the ballet “Pulcinella” arranged for violin and piano. These arrangements went through several generations, the last of which was prepared while Stravinsky worked with the violinist Samuel Dushkin. This was the version that Perlman performed, distinguished by including a “Scherzino” movement absent from the earlier version. (The original was a song meant to be sung by a quack doctor who brings the recently stabbed Pulcinella back to life, sort of in the spirit of Despina in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 588 opera Così fan tutte.) Perlman delightfully captured all of the wit from this episode, not to mention the many clever turns in all of the other movements. It was the perfect way to “prime the pump” for the outpouring of encores that would follow.

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