A Warm, if Stodgy, Tour of Certified Classics

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms: Itzhak Perlman (violin, conductor), San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 9.1.2016. (HS)

Beethoven: Romance in F major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 50; Romance in G major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 40

Mozart: Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183

Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98

Though primarily known for a luminous violin sound and warmth of phrasing, the 70-year-old violinist Itzhak Perlman has of late devoted more of his energies to conducting. In 2012 he made an appearance leading a program of Vivaldi, Mozart and Tchaikovsky with the San Francisco Symphony, which I recalled vaguely as disappointing, although I could not remember the details.

His appearance this past weekend with the symphony—two performances at Davies Hall—opened with him conducting and playing Beethoven’s Romances for violin and orchestra. Then he led the ensemble in Mozart’s “Little G minor” symphony and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4. In each case he aimed for rich sound, going for sumptuousness sonorities, sometimes at the expense of clarity, settling into unhurried tempos which also tamped down rhythmic vitality.

My 2012 review, which I found the morning after the performance, pretty much said the same thing about the Vivaldi, Mozart and Tchaikovsky works he presented then, suggesting that Perlman the conductor is something of a throwback to a musical approach we don’t hear much any more.

Take the Brahms symphony. These days most conductors work hard to find clarity in Brahms’ dense voicings and complex counterpoint. Perlman extracted high-calorie creaminess in the string sound, and let the music unfold at a steady tread. The performance had polish and plushness. Its cuddly warmth was not always in sync with Brahms’ opening measures of resignation-infused sighs, his more upbeat (if temporary) resolution, and finally, the complex shifts of harmony and character of the fourth-movement chaconne. Instead of showing emotional colors, the music compressed into one long march—a fascinating sound world, immaculately executed, but with broad gestures rather than subtlety.

Perlman’s take on Mozart’s early symphony emphasized the stentorian more than the graceful. Taking a cue from the opening gesture, a broad theme played in octaves, Perlman kept the music on terra firma even when it might want to take flight. As in the Brahms, the rich sounds seemed to interest him more than the subtle shifts of rhythm in the wistful Andante and mercurial Menuetto.

This propensity toward sober tempos informed Beethoven’s two genial Romances for violin and orchestra. With lovely melodies rotating slowly between the increasingly more figurative lines from the soloist and the orchestra’s restatements, Perlman showed a deft touch with a tune. Although his body language seemed to urge more rhythmic push from the orchestra, the result was a pleasantly appealing amble through some lovely musical phrases.

Perlman fans, probably not regular concertgoers who know better, applauded every time the music stopped between movements, even when Perlman’s body language signaled that he wanted an oasis of silence. This usually doesn’t bother me—after all, people should be able to show appreciation for what they just heard—but it was clear Perlman was frustrated.

Then again, maybe it’s just another way this evening was a throwback to another time, when conductors aimed for sumptuous sound no matter what and audiences didn’t care about unspoken expectations either.

Harvey Steiman

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