Review: Itzhak Perlman, with John Root, serves up delicious recital for Hill Auditorium audience

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Sept. 15, 2014)

Of the great musical artists before the public today, there are a select few who generate not just feelings of admiration but of affection. They are the ones we greet with extended, warm applause just because they’ve walked on stage. They are the ones we often think of by first name, though they’re not in any way our chums.

That’s why I was not at all surprised to get this message from a friend while I was gone Sunday evening: “I suppose you’re out hearing Itzhak,” she said.


Itzhak PerlmanCourtesy photo

Itzhak, of course, is superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman, who opened the University Musical Society 2014-15 season at Hill Auditorium Sunday in a recital with pianist John Root. I don’t know him personally, but like many in the hall, I think, I have the sense of a relationship that reaches past the footlights.

You could say that Sunday’s UMS recital, filled with sonatas by J.S. Bach, Franck and Ravel, was pretty far from Perlman’s more personal “In the Fiddler’s House” shows, relaxed programs of traditional Jewish music (and Yiddish story- and joke-telling) that have audiences sometimes dancing in the aisles.

But if we weren’t in the fiddler’s house, we were definitely in his living room – shoes off, comfy for his announced repertoire, and ties really loosened for the mini-salon he offered to finish the concert, filled with patter and jokes and lots of whiz-bang, gee-whiz violin baubles.

There was a collective “wow” exhale after the virtuoso pyrotechnics of the Wieniawski Caprice in a minor, Op. 18. And you had to love the tango rhythm in the middle of Kreisler’s “Tambourin Chinois,” a sign that Perlman was on target when he quipped that, regardless of its title, the piece was neither French nor Chinese. A hybrid by way of Vienna, what the piece was, was fun.

So was the rest of the program – all actually French except for the Bach.

The Bach work, which opened the bill, was the last of the composer’s six sonatas for violin and keyboard, in G Major. Here, the keyboard instrument was not a harpsichord but the modern Steinway, and there was equal work for both pianist Root – a terrific musician — and Perlman. I found myself wishing for a more three-dimensional dynamic soundscape from the two players, but they were champs for fleetness, ornamentation, a light touch and judicious use of vibrato.

They really came into their own, though, in the Franck Sonata. The textures, which can be turgid and thick here, given the piano writing, never even came close (thank you, Mr. Root), and the piece spoke amazingly from the get-go, with Root’s hazy, Impressionist-colored opening in the piano and Perlman’s tremulous response with his violin. Speech was the word that kept coming to mind as I listened to this music in the hands of this pair. There were soliloquies and confessions, passionate outbursts, declamations, recitations. And obsessions, stubborn repetitions like those of a dream you cannot escape. Here, you didn’t want to. It was fantastic.

No less pleasing was the Ravel sonata, with all that jazz, you know? Perlman was full of bent notes and slides and portamento stretched to fit the modern age. It was delicious music, deliciously rendered. And it was the perfect dessert before the little Viennese-French mignardises Perlman served up in his salon to end the evening.

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