Itzhak Perlman may be a late boomer among the crop of soloists who have tried their hands at conducting, but judging by his engaging performance on Sunday afternoon with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, he is more talented than many I have heard over the years.  Having turned 70 and recently received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the US, he was no doubt on a high.

Itzhak Perlman © Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Itzhak Perlman
© Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Appetisers to the main course were two Romances for violin and orchestra by Beethoven.  Compared with other brow-beating works for which the composer is better known, these dainty single-movement romances may appear lacklustre, but they can be quite soothing introductions to more demanding fare. It’s as if Beethoven was still wallowing in the comfort of Mozart and Haydn and had not yet broken loose into the fire and brimstone that characterise his later works. Mr Perlman’s initial tone in the double-stop opening of the Romance in G major, Op.40 was a little dry, but he quickly recovered himself and sweetness soon emerged. The Romance in F major, Op.50 is by far the more lyrical of the two, and in this he came off with flying colours. His rapport with the orchestra was such that at points it was more like fellow soloists in a chamber work than a soloist playing with a large ensemble.

As one of only two in the genre he wrote in the key of G minor, probably taking a leaf out of Haydn’s book in his “Sturm und Drang” style, Mozart’s Symphony no. 25 clearly has stronger emotional content than his other output up to then. Returning to the podium purely as conductor, Itzhak Perlman launched into the symphony with nervous energy that gave it appropriate intensity, although it was mildly louder than I would have expected from a “forte” marking. The orchestra teased out the melodic leaps in a steady pace in the first movement and delivered a straight reading of the Andante second movement without hyperbole. The woodwinds-only trio in the third movement was not quite colourful enough as a counterpoise to the minuet, but the elegantly agitated drift of the final movement had me swaying in my seat.

For musicians, Brahms' Fourth Symphony is a technically innovative and intellectually challenging work, but for the less expert listener it is also delightfully kaleidoscopic in orchestral colour and emotionally strenuous, much as life occasionally can be. The low-key opening of descending thirds on strings is no-nonsense in its candour and easily catches the unwary off guard. Soothing woodwind passages, calming in their serenity, come to the rescue. As tension builds, more and more anxiety is evident in the brass with countervailing, sometimes staccato, arguments from the strings. Hovering woodwinds seemed helpless to prevent the movement’s progress into its cathartic conclusion. Throughout the turbulence, the orchestra displayed superb poise and sensitivity, arresting in its effectiveness but not menacing in its power.

The horn call that opens the second movement comes as a welcome relief, leading into yet more gentle reprieve among the woodwinds. The highlight for me was the treacly lyricism of the strings, with a lush and cosy tone, as the movement moved towards the close. Itzhak Perlman bounced up and down in his chair on the podium to inject verve into the energetic third movement, replete with frequent comments from the triangle, pushing the strings along in their hopscotch to finish.

The weighty brass struck a serious tone to launch the final movement. Temporary interruption by the lilting flute, with clarinet and oboe in tow, was not enough to stop the movement’s inexorable march into its tragic climax of a soaring melody on high strings trying to break loose from the grip of three-note thumps on cellos and basses. The thumps are not quite as devastating as the hammer blows in Mahler’s Sixth, but intimidating enough nevertheless.

In Brahms’ symphony in particular, Itzhak Perlman showed himself to be a serious conductor skilful in the art, rather than a soloist dabbling for fun. It was a truly enthralling account of an epoch-defining work.