Itzhak Perlman, Violin Legend, Still Proves the Critics Wrong

Itzhak Perlman, Violin Legend, Still Proves the Critics Wrong

Itzhak Perlman is a superstar in classical music. And not just there: No other violinist enjoys his level of recognition among people who don’t even go to traditional concerts.

Many have seen him on “Sesame Street,” or at Madison Square Garden appearing alongside Billy Joel. They might have heard him speaking about disability issues, informed by the childhood bout of polio that took away the use of his legs. They might have teared up listening to the theme from “Schindler’s List,” which Mr. Perlman infused with ineffable melancholy.

Mr. Perlman has been so ubiquitous that it is easy to take for granted his status as “the reigning virtuoso of the violin,” as his marketing materials put it. But with his 75th birthday arriving on Aug. 31, this may be a moment to reassess how that reign began and what has happened to the realm and all the superlatives. For some guidance, there is a new box set from Sony of 18 CDs, from a 1967 Prokofiev album with Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra to the klezmer tribute “Eternal Echoes,” from 2012.

For me, it’s also a chance to revisit an experience with Mr. Perlman at a 2014 recital, a concert that left me disappointed, but also curious to understand what it was his fans in the hall were cheering.

Part of my discomfort that evening came from the discrepancy between the live performance he was giving and my memory of his albums. Like many, I had come to know Mr. Perlman through his recordings. By the time I was in my teens in the 1980s and becoming serious about studying the violin, virtually every album of fiddle music I owned featured him. The Solo Sonatas and Partitas of Bach, in which his sustained, radiant sound seemed to draw ribbons of light in the dark. The concertos of Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, in which his violin cut jubilantly through the orchestral forest in even the most acrobatic passages. His Bruch simmered. His Mozart was flirtatious and sunny. He was a universal entry point to classical music.

Mr. Perlman was born in Tel Aviv in 1945 and fell in love with the violin when he first heard it on the radio at 3. A year later, he contracted polio, but after recovering showed a remarkable musical talent. A significant break came in 1958, when he was invited to play Mendelssohn on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Soon after that, he moved to New York to study with the famed pedagogue Dorothy DeLay at the Juilliard School.

On that 1967 debut recording, with Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony, he played Prokofiev’s Second Concerto. Appropriately, the first notes are Mr. Perlman’s alone, and his sound in that ruminating statement is soulful and knowing. Elsewhere, in passages of agitated difficulty, the bravura and bite of the young violinist’s technique are evident. But it is the heat and depth of tone that announced, from the beginning, an artist of uncommon magnetism.

Mr. Perlman rose to fame as an earlier cohort of star violinists — Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, Yehudi Menuhin — faded from view. With his glamorous tone and dazzling technical skills, he was their natural heir.

More collaborations with Leinsdorf followed, and with the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, who would become a preferred chamber music partner for years. By the 1980s, Mr. Perlman was the standard — and some degree of standardization seemed part of the package. His facility with acrobatic bowing techniques made him one of the most persuasive champions of 19th-century showpieces, like the Paganini caprices or Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy.” And his signature tone resulted in definitive renditions of war horses of the concerto repertory.

Glossy, voluminous and cleanly contoured across the range, his sound was uncommonly reliable, reproducible and brightly projected. It aligned perfectly with the high-fidelity technology that was changing both the way people listened to music at home and what they expected to hear in live concerts.

And onscreen: Mr. Perlman proved a natural communicator on television, advocating for music and disability rights with a winning combination of self-deprecating charm and self-assurance. In 1993, it was his violin that deepened the pathos of the “Schindler’s List” theme, which for a vast swath of listeners remains his signature tune. On Spotify, it has been streamed over 35 million times — five times as many as his most popular classical tracks on the service: an eye-wateringly difficult Paganini caprice and a somewhat stodgy summer storm from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

In 1994, Mr. Perlman formalized his increasing devotion to education. His wife, the violinist Toby Perlman, founded the Perlman Music Program, through which both continue to nurture gifted teenage string players. The course includes a robust course of contemporary music, taught not by Mr. Perlman but by visiting specialists: His own dips into the music of his time have been rare, and even more rarely on the experimental side of things.

Yet even as Mr. Perlman’s fame grew outside of the classical music scene, his stature inside it shrank. One reason is that, with fewer media opportunities for classical artists, the hierarchical shape of the field began to cave in, even as that field narrowed. The historically informed performance movement revolutionized approaches to early music and whipped up an appetite for fleeter and more feathery readings, especially of Bach. A new generation of concert violinists, like Janine Jansen, have found ways to integrate the lessons of the period-instrument movement with symphony-hall glamour and punch; by contrast, Mr. Perlman’s style can seem staid and dated.

Other trends moved from niche markets into the mainstream, where tastes were more open to diversity. Contemporary music created specialist players familiar with its techniques and technological demands. The cellist Yo-Yo Ma, among others, used his star power to familiarize concert audiences with non-Western instruments. No one violinist could preside over such a polyglot scene as the reigning virtuoso.

And Mr. Perlman’s skills began to deteriorate. Critics called out his “careless playing” and “effortful intonation.” That matched my own experience at Lincoln Center in 2014, a program which began with a rendition of a Vivaldi sonata that was almost obtusely old-fashioned and stodgy. His tone was still vibrant and vigorous, but it had lost much of the pliancy and depth that had warmed earlier recordings.

But the printed part of the program (which also included works by Ravel, Beethoven and Schumann) was only the prelude. Mr. Perlman played eight sweet and flashy encores, which he picked, miming impatience, from a huge stack of sheet music before introducing them with the odd anecdote or droll comment.

Though the show of generosity and spontaneity felt manipulative to me, the audience loved it. Undoubtedly charisma had a lot to do with this. And I suspect that what many listeners heard was a palimpsest combining the Perlman they knew from recordings with the one playing live in front of them.

If the flaws in his playing registered at all to such listeners, they might not have perceived as such. String instruments can have a very direct way of showing the age of their player — unlike the piano, on which weakening faculties more often translate into simple flubbed notes. A violin can betray, but also humanize an aging musician. Recent footage of Ida Haendel, who died last month at (it is thought) 96, and Ivry Gitlis, now 98, offer a fascinating mix of frailty, beauty and ironclad talent.

As I watch these videos, I come to believe that part of the fascination lies in the way the corporeality of the player presses to the forefront. After a lifetime dedicated to doing justice to great composers, when we expect performers to be almost transparent vehicles for the music, nature invites us to consider their humanity — not in some abstract, transcendent manner, but flesh-and-blood, warts and all.

Mr. Perlman’s playing is still far from wrinkled. While his Vivaldi now bears the sepia tint of another era, he has been in business long enough to have seen fashions come and go. And it is strategic for him to make his late-career concerts a bit more about him and a bit less about Vivaldi. The sheer brilliance of his sound goes a long way in disarming scholarly scruples and critical quibbles. And whether or not they subscribe to every detail of his style, aspiring soloists would do well to study an art of which he is indeed perhaps the reigning virtuoso: engaging an audience, and playing it both for pathos and laughs.

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