There are few things more life-affirming than seeing Itzhak Perlman take to the stage. This he did Wednesday evening at Ravinia with another titan of classical music in tow, longtime collaborator Emanuel Ax. The two superstars drew a large crowd, necessitating the use of Ravinia’s Pavilion despite the repertoire being much more suited to the intimate Martin Theatre. Perlman, who turned 70 just last week, has an association with Ravinia lasting some five decades having debuted in 1966, shortly before his 21st birthday. The program was centered on violin sonatas by Mozart, Fauré and Strauss.

Itzhak Perlman © Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Itzhak Perlman
© Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Mozart’s Violin Sonata no. 17 in C major, K296 is the first of his mature works in the genre, and moreover, the first to be expanded to a three movement structure. The piano largely dominates with the violin relegated to an accompanying role – the pearly classical style of the work was a chance for Ax to show what he does best, starting the evening on a high note. The tautly structured sonata form of the opening movement begins with the most genial of themes in the piano, with the violin playing a simple countermelody on top. The concise development offers some contrast, although I thought such contrast could have been heightened so as to make the work less homogenized. The tender slow movement was emblematic of duo’s amiable comradery that characterized the performance as a whole. Sparse, transparent writing in the piano part of the closing rondo allows no room for error and was a testament to the remarkable clarity of Ax’s playing. While there are brief forays into the relative minor, it is by and large unfettered joie de vivre. Regrettable, then that this work wasn’t also committed to disc in the aforementioned recording.

The Violin Sonata no. 1 in A major, Op.13 of Gabriel Fauré is the composer’s first work of chamber music and comes from a time in his career when he was still searching for his own voice. Still, it is a formidable work brimming with the confidence of a promising young composer. The rich introduction in the piano of the expansive first movement sets up the yearning, romantic theme given to the violin. The transition to the serene Andante was marred by the passing of the ever-dependable Union Pacific North line – while it provided a moment of levity, it did little to help the overall dramaturgy of the piece. The opening of the movement is a prime example of the reticence that one generally associate’s with Fauré’s rarefied aesthetic, while the turbulent middle section allows for some more extroverted playing. The calm returns, ending with ethereal, bell-like sonorities in the piano. A featherweight scherzo follows, Perlman and Ax perfectly in sync for this technical legerdemain. While the scherzo might bring to mind Saint-Saëns, the weighty sonata form finale foreshadows Franck’s epochal work in the medium with its searing passion. 

Perlman brought the Strauss Violin Sonata to Chicago as recently as his 2014 recital at the Civic Opera House. It’s a piece that to my mind is a bit long-winded, but he and Ax nonetheless made a compelling case for it. Written roughly contemporaneously with the watershed orchestral scores of Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration, the sonata is both a farewell to chamber music and a preview of all that’s to come with it grandiosity, especially apparent in the heroic first movement. The slow movement has often been presented independently, and it’s not hard to see why, the saturnine lugubriousness of the main theme never without an inexorable seductiveness. Beautiful as their playing was, there was still a certain rigidity that belied the improvisatory indication in the score. After a slow introduction, the finale returns to the temperament of the opening, its substantial virtuoso demands handled impressively well by both.

Encores followed, beginning with the first of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op.73. Written for clarinet or cello, it sounded a little meek on the violin but Perlman’s rich tone helped compensate. Finally, we heard Kreisler’s Liebeslied, inevitably paired with Liebesfreud – both charming and played with suitable panache. While Perlman’s technique is far from what it used to be – and there were times when his playing was rather lackluster – what made the lasting impression was the warm congeniality between the two friends on stage that positively glowed – just what the doctor ordered on an unseasonably chilly September night.