By Susan Miron
A bit surprising — that two megastars choose such meat and potatoes repertoire.
Monday evening’s Celebrity Series of Boston’s sold-out event at Symphony Hall gave violinist Itzhak Perlman top billing, a standard practice for violin and piano recitals, over pianist Evgeny Kissin. But, up until the selection before the encores, it was Kissin who consistently made the bigger impression. Also a bit surprising: that two megastars choose such meat and potatoes repertoire.
In response to Kissin’s earlier appearances via the Celebrity Series as a spectacular soloist, the organization seems to have become interested in the idea of re-casting the great pianist, now 47, as a chamber music player or musical collaborator. Last year, Celebrity Series presented him with the great Emerson Quartet; unfortunately, the balance seemed off throughout the concert, at least from where I sat. Monday, the balance during the first half of the concert was, again, less than ideal. It was as if Perlman, now in his second half-century of concert-giving, had not realized that a violin can’t drown out a piano, that the player must highlight subordinate melodic material. Next year, the Celebrity Series is pairing Kissin with superstar soprano Renée Fleming. (A soprano generally has more success dealing with the sound of a piano than a violin.) Frankly, this listener yearns for the return of a Kissin solo recital.
Perlman and Kissin are an odd dream team. The violinist has been the universe’s favorite, a ubiquitous string player since his early twenties (he’s now 73). Perlman has charmed and delighted billions of people with his performances as well as his ebullient on-stage personality. And he still, at his best, is deservedly beloved, as he proved in the second half of the program, particularly its encores. Kissin is a far less flamboyant performer; his playing could best be described as patrician, yet consistently thrilling. There is no other pianist I would rather hear.
The pair began their standard repertoire program — Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven — with the middle period Mozart Sonata No. 23 in D Major for violin and piano, K. 306. There were problems in terms of balance, personality, and tempo throughout. The violin seemed to be working to catch up with the pianist’s faster tempo. Of course, this sonata (1778) was written to favor the piano; here it sounded most of the time like a virtuoso Mozart piano concerto with violin added, almost as an afterthought, icing on the cake. The piano playing was stunning throughout, deeply expressive, especially in the enchanting solo opening of the second movement.
This sonata is part of a set of 6 (K. 301-306) Mozart worked on during his stay in Mannheim and completed in Paris. Mozart had the set engraved in Paris and dedicated them to the Electress of the Palatinate; this was in keeping with his habit of dedicating works to people who might be able to assist him in the early stage of his career. Of the set, the D major sonata is by far the grandest in scale, written in three movements rather than the two of the previous five. In a most unusual move, Mozart provided a striking extended cadenza-like passage for violin and piano near the end of the last movement, which here received a beautiful and modulated performance.
Johannes Brahms’s Second Sonata in A Major for violin and piano, Opus 100 (1886) was also an uneven collaboration. The violin was again overpowered by the piano. The duo is repeating this program in Carnegie Hall and two other (I am certain, sold-out) venues. I hope they rethink balance issues before then. In the Brahms, I often felt I was listening to two separate concerts; the artists had different views of how this piece should be executed. Perhaps the acoustics of the hall were not considered seriously enough, although both Kissin and Perlman have performed in Symphony Hall numerous times. There was simply not enough projection from the violin, which was overwhelmed by the piano. Subordinate melodic passages in the violin did not break through.
Things changed radically after intermission with a superb performance of Beethoven’s famous Sonata No. 9 in A Major for violin and piano, Opus 47 “Kreutzer” (1803). It was written during Beethoven’s famous “middle period,” which, as the program notes remind us, “heralded a bold leap forward for the increasingly deaf and fiercely independent young (33) composer.” Perlman was at his best here, playing gorgeously. Kissin deployed his customary huge palette of colors and dynamics. Finally, we were given the benefits of what felt like a real musical partnership.
Of course, there were, predictably, encores. The first was a transcription of Lensky’s Aria from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, arranged by violinist and pedagogue Leopold Auer, who was Heifetz’s teacher. Perlman turned on his famous charm, and talked about Auer’s days at the Julliard School, where students called him ‘Professor Half an Hour.’ This was followed by a spectacular performance, especially by Perlman, of Mañuel de Falla’s thrilling Spanish Dance from his opera La Vida Breve. The hordes of happy concertgoer left in high spirits. What terrific encores! If only the body of the recital had been as imaginatively programmed.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 30 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.