Itzhak Perlman is certainly one of the most venerated recitalists alive today. Already at age thirteen he was making himself known to a wide American audience on the Ed Sullivan Show, and has since graced the stages of all the world’s greatest concert halls. He’s no stranger to Montréal, either. The violinist joked as he read a list of encores: “This is a computerized list of everything I’ve played in Montréal since 1912. In case you were here in 1912, I don’t want you to hear the same piece twice.”

Itzhak Perlman © Akira Kinoshita
Itzhak Perlman
© Akira Kinoshita

It is exactly this kind of conviviality that draws audiences to hear Perlman play. Even before he raises his bow, from his smile alone you can sense the genuineness that is to come. Accompanist Rohan de Silva joined the stage this evening with Perlman, in a program of Beethoven, Franck and Tartini.

The hall was packed tonight, with the audience spilling onto the stage. Beethoven’s Violin Sonata no. 1 was first. This is an early work of Beethoven, from the period just after he made his move from Bonn to Vienna. His first years there were dominated by study with Haydn, who taught him counterpoint, though apparently not with enough care and diligence to keep Beethoven satisfied. The two eventually had a falling out, and Beethoven sought other teachers, but the influence of his classical style is ever apparent in Beethoven’s works, especially this one. The sonata form of the first movement is concise, the development does not plunge into exotic keys like much of his later work, and the variations of the second movement are positively Mozartian, though imbued with those fledgling strains of Romanticism which would later surge powerfully through his music.

My first-ever impression of the Maison Symphonique was its incredible ability to highlight the tone of a solo violin. I have heard, with Bell or Hahn for example, huge contrast in dynamic range and expression. Tonight with Perlman, however, the sound was generally quite flat, dynamically speaking. He plays with a great confidence and character, though it is clear that it isn’t technical perfection or crystal-clear tone that brings people to hear him: it is his wisdom and experience, and the general air of joy that he brings to the music.

Perlman is of the school of thought which endorses an almost constant use of vibrato, which at times overshadows right-hand bow technique, especially in regards to phrasing. This became even more apparent in Franck’s Violin Sonata which, from de Silva’s first, lushly stacked chords, simply oozed with Frenchness. This work gave Perlman the chance to indulge in that fast and ever-present vibrato of his. The tone of his Stradivarius, which once belonged to Yehudi Menuhin, was rather pinched on the E string, though slightly more rich and gritty on the strings below. Da Silva’s playing at all times matched Perlman’s. In fact, he had throughout the evening everything you would want in an accompanist: subtle craft, intelligent voicing, and a general unobtrusiveness which only receded during piano interludes.

The third movement of the Franck, “Recitativo-Fantasia”, was the most expressive and moving movement of the evening. In a declamatory style, the two instruments dialogued passionately, creating a true conversational exchange in a language we all understood.

After an intermission came Tartini’s Sonata in G minor, “Devil’s Trill”, a work which was supposedly written by Tartini after a powerful dream in which the devil himself played a melody so wonderful, he had to wake and write it down. It is a work steeped in the Baroque, with figured bass as accompaniment, but Perlman seemed to give a nod more to the arranger Kreisler than to the Baroque Tartini with his chosen style and sound, which was again rife with vibrato. The work is technically demanding, even by today’s standards, and the wild gypsyesque cadenza made almost entirely of double-stop trills was wonderfully performed by Perlman with a kind of unfettered abandon. This is a performer without fear: he will at all times sacrifice perfect intonation or tone for clarity of musical gesture.

He played six encores in all – works by Kreisler, Tchaikovsky, Wieniawski, John Williams, Brahms/Joachim and finally Bozzini. These encores were punctuated by sharp jokes in Perlman’s surprisingly resonant basso voice (a voice which, believe it or not, can be heard in opera recordings with Domingo and Pavarotti), the best of which was, after an almost ridiculous amount of coughing between movements throughout the evening: “The next piece, which is appropriate for tonight, is by TchaiCOUGHsky.”

Audiences worldwide love Mr Perlman’s warm and bright character, and tonight was no exception.