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Music Review: Violinist Itzhak Perlman works his magic on a classically savvy Nashville crowd

Itzhak PerlmanFew classical musicians are capable of filling an auditorium for a solo instrumental recital anymore. One who still can is the renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, who performed for a large and surprisingly savvy classical music crowd on Sunday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

Perlman was giving his first solo recital in Nashville in nearly 20 years, so there was understandably a lot of excitement at the Schermerhorn on Sunday night. But there was also a keen interest on the part of this audience to hear every sound and every silence emanating from the stage. So Perlman and his accompanist, Rohan De Silva, were able to play sonatas by Beethoven and Ravel without applause interrupting the various movements.

There’s a lot of debate in classical circles about whether audiences should applaud between the movements of multi-part pieces, with reformers arguing that the art form might not be in as much trouble if people were just allowed to have fun. Well, I’m happy to report that the audience at Perlman’s concert had plenty of fun, and they applauded heartily, even lustily, for all the virtuoso salon confections that the duo played during the program’s second half.

But this audience also understood that close, careful listening has its own rewards. For instance, that soft, beautiful A-flat major piano chord that opens the second movement of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in C minor seemed all the more magical when heard in hushed expectation. It also made Perlman’s own soft, expressive playing in the same movement seem all the more delicate and weightless.

Perlman is without question the greatest living exponent of the Romantic style of violin playing. His performances are remarkable for their intense emotions, grand gestures and big vibratos. During performances, Perlman always seems to have a smile on his face and his heart on his sleeve. The only drawback to his approach is his tendency to play everything essentially the same way.

The first half of his concert, for instance, included Vivaldi’s Sonatina in A major, Schumann’s three Fantasy Pieces and Beethoven’s aforementioned Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor. If one didn’t know better, one might have guessed from Perlman’s interpretations that these three composers were all contemporaries who hung out together in Viennese beer halls listening to gypsy tunes.

All three works, each from different style periods, were played with the same lush tone, the same supersized vibrato, the same long, lyrically romantic lines. This is not to suggest that Perlman’s playing wasn’t affecting; at their best, his performances go straight to the heart. But his intellectual and emotional exploration of music seems to be limited to brio and affettuoso playing.

That kind of playing, by the way, worked wonderfully during the program’s second half. Perlman was clearly enjoying himself in Ravel’s Violin Sonata, which has a lively, bluesy second movement. Perlman and De Silva closed the concert with a half-dozen salon pieces, mostly arrangements by Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz.

Perlman noted that Kreisler’s arrangement of a sarabande, supposedly in the style of baroque Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli, still had a Viennese-gypsy flavor. So did Kreisler’s transcription of one of Chopin Polish mazurkas. Kreisler, like Perlman, had a way of making everything sound romantic.

But one doubts that even Heifetz could have topped the performance Perlman gave of Bazzini’s Dance of the Goblins, which was offered as an encore. Perlman played this piece with energy and electricity, winning a thunderous ovation for his efforts. It warmed the hearts of his many fans as they traveled home on a cold November evening.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.