At the age of 71, Itzhak Perlman is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, as he took to the stage on his electric Amigo scooter earlier this month at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis), he seemed more energized than we had thought he’d been in his many past performances at that venue over the last 15 years. Admittedly, seeing him ride a scooter is bound to lead one to think he has a lot of energy, especially when compared to the difficulty he has had over the years walking with crutches. (Perlman has suffered from the effects of polio since he contracted the disease when he was four years old.)
But Mr. Perlman is also not slowing down in his virtuosity with the violin. In an excellent recital in which he was ably accompanied by pianist Rohan De Silva, Mr. Perlman played works by Vivaldi, Beethoven, Schumann and Stravinsky and then dazzled the audience with five encores that he announced with great comic introductions. He is a master performer with a delightful stage persona, and he still seems very much in his prime.
He opened the program with Vivaldi’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major. It’s a short, four-movement work that opens with a series of five very short stanzas that move from swift prestos to adagios and back to the presto that concludes it. Dance rhythms can be heard throughout the remaining three movements, which end with a lively Giga, based on an English folk dance.
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 for Violin and Piano in F Major is a more significant work, requiring deft interplay between violin and piano. Mr. Perlman and Mr. De Silva had no difficulty with the challenges in the score, although Mr. De Silva’s page turner did fumble badly at one point, almost causing the printed score to fall onto the keyboard. Mr. De Silva saved the score with one hand, while continuing to play with the other, not missing a note in the process.
The duo concluded the first half of the program with Robert Schumann’s “Fantasiestϋcke” for Violin and Piano, which the composer wrote during the two-year period when his close friends, Fanny Mendelssohn (Felix’s sister) and, shortly thereafter, Felix himself, died. All three movements of the piece are tender in mood, although Mr. Perlman showed greater animation in the last two than in the first.
All three works on the first half of the program were soothing in tone, but in none did Mr. Perlman put his virtuosity on display. He more than made up for that deficit following the intermission. Again with Mr. De Silva in solid support, he began with Igor Stravinsky’s six movement “Suite Italienne” for Violin and Piano. Consisting of transcriptions for violin and piano from Stravinsky’s opera “Pulcinella” (the violinist Samuel Dushkin transcribed the violin parts; Stravinsky arranged the piano accompaniments), the work covers six segments from the opera, and with the third (Tarantella) and fifth (Scherzino), Mr. Perlman finally showed his stuff.
He then returned with Mr. De Silva to perform the five encores that were, again, virtuosic displays of his immense talent. He introduced each of the works (regrettably, without a microphone) with humorous quips that had him weaving a thread from a transcription by Fritz Kreisler (“in the style of that well-known composer François Francoeur,” he joked since presumably no one (certainly not us) had ever heard of Francoeur), to a transcription of a Tchaikovsky opera by Leopold Auer, to a transcription by Jascha Heifetz (“who had been a student of Auer”) of Prokofiev’s opera “The Love of Three Oranges,” to an original composition by Kreisler (a “miniature Viennese March”). In each of these pieces, Mr. Perlman was at his virtuosic best.
He and Mr. De Silva then ended the concert with what Mr. Perlman described as a “piece by Franz Ries (one of many Ries pieces)” entitled “Perpetual Motion.” This recital favorite requires the manual and digital dexterity of a teenager. Mr. Perlman began it with a quick tempo and then continually accelerated that tempo until he was playing about as fast as we imagine any violinist can play. It was a great way to conclude a wonderfully entertaining concert by a highly accomplished and thoroughly delightful master musician.