Last night in a sold-out Davies Symphony Hall, the Great Performers Series of the San Francisco Symphony continued with a recital by violinist Itzhak Perlman accompanied by pianist Rohan De Silva. The program listed three sonatas, beneath which was printed the sentence:
Additional works to be announced from the stage.
That is a practice usually reserved for encore material; and, sure enough, Perlman worked his way through eight selections, all of which were apparently encores from past recitals, introducing each with a bit of verbal banter.
The two sonatas that preceded the intermission were both major works in the violin recital repertoire. Perlman began with Ludwig van Beethoven’s first published sonata for violin and piano in D major, the first of his Opus 12 set. This was followed by César Franck’s only violin sonata.
Note the extended use of language in describing Beethoven. As I observed a little over a week ago, when violinist Gil Shaham and pianist Akira Eguchi performed Beethoven’s Opus 47 (“Kreutzer”) sonata in A major, Beethoven cared too much about the piano to relegate it to “mere accompaniment.” By the time Opus 12 was published in 1798, Beethoven had already established a significant portfolio of works for piano, including seven sonatas (the three in Opus 2, Opus 7, and the three in Opus 10) and four trios (the three in Opus 1 and Opus 11, with its instrumental options).
Thus, it is no surprise that there was a generous share of pianism in the D major sonata. Indeed, even with the lid held open only with a short stick, there was a danger that De Silva would overpower Perlman. This may have involved some disagreement over the proper rhetorical stance to take with this sonata. De Silva seemed to wish to give it a grand treatment, while Perlman was more disposed to keep things light and intimate. Bearing in mind that it is not easy to be “light and intimate” in a space as large as Davies, I still side with Perlman. Each of those earlier piano pieces cited in the last paragraph offers many examples of Beethoven’s capacity for light-hearted wit, perhaps a product of his efforts to outdo his teacher, Joseph Haydn, on that particular playing field. While Perlman never overplayed the humor in the D major sonata, that element emerged naturally from his easy-going style, at least when that style was not overwhelmed by De Silva’s dynamics.
The balance was far more effective in the Franck sonata. Here, again, the role of the piano is as significant as that of the violin. While De Silva never short-changed any of Franck’s many lush pianistic flourishes, he seemed more aware of Perlman’s choice of dynamic levels. Perlman, for his part, recognized that this sonata required more heart-felt expressiveness and rose to the occasion. He was particularly effective in the Recitativo section that precedes the final movement. Identified as “Fantasia,” this section subtly introduces much of the thematic material to follow as motifs that emerge through recitative style. This section thus reflects on the pre-classical tradition in which recitative introduces a grand aria; but, in this case, the “singer” of that aria is the violin in the sonata’s final movement. Perlman seemed to be aware of those vocal qualities in his approach to performance, making this sonata the high point of last night’s program.
The intermission was followed by the so-called “Devil’s Trill” sonata. This is a sonata in G minor composed by Giuseppe Tartini for violin and continuo, probably in 1713. The title supposedly comes from a dream Tartini had in which the devil played Tartini’s own violin.
The famous violinist Fritz Kreisler made this sonata a platform for his own virtuosity. With his late nineteenth-century Viennese upbringing, Kreisler was not a performer with historically-informed priorities. So he took Tartini’s figured bass continuo and fleshed it out into a proper nineteenth-century piano accompaniment. (He may have juiced up the violin part as well.) This is the version that Perlman and De Silva performed last night. As one might guess, there are few traces remaining of the original eighteenth-century rhetoric; but the technical demands remain impressive. The piece is more high-wire-act than chamber music; but Perlman managed to play up what little musicality remained in Kreisler’s arrangement.
It thus seemed appropriate that Perlman should begin his encores with a Kreisler selection. This was a minuet-style movement composed in the style of Gaetano Pugnani. The remaining selections alternated between technically demanding (such as a caprice for two violins by Henryk Wieniawski rearranged for violin and piano) to quietly introspective (as in John Williams’ theme for the film Schindler’s List). There was also an arrangement of an arrangement, so to speak: a performance on violin of an arrangement of Gabriel Fauré’s song “Après un rêve,” made by Pablo Casals for cello and piano. Then, after bringing down the house with Pablo de Sarasate’s Opus 43 introduction and tarantella, Perlman followed a series of bows with a “one more time” encore of Antonio Bazzini’s Opus 25, “La ronde des lutins” (dance of the goblins).
The overall effect was a bit unbalanced. Think of a well-conceived three-course meal followed by followed by eight desserts, each one with more sugar than its predecessor. The affair was certainly entertaining, and Perlman’s introductions were suitably amusing. Nevertheless, he prepared the “vegetables” for the evening so well that I, for one, would have preferred a bit more of them.