February 15, 2014

Perlman makes us hear Mendelssohn with new ears

Violinist’s revelatory performance enlivens Felix Mendelssohn’s beloved Violin Concerto in E Minor.

Classical music critics have argued for almost 170 years whether Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor ranks among the greats. For me, the argument ended Saturday night at Belk Theater.

A sold-out house came to watch Itzhak Perlman play a one-night gala concert with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. They saw a master who has no need to impress and appears, at this point, to play only for himself. The gray-haired Perlman will turn 70 next year, and the closest parallel I can think of is Ravi Shankar in his latter days, hunched over his sitar as if it were an extension of his arms.

The German word “innigkeit” means ardent feelings or intimacy, so it’s the perfect noun for Perlman’s performance.

He took a concerto that has traditionally been a bravura showpiece and made it something much more lyrical. Where most players revel in the rapid runs of the first movement, Perlman spun threads of sound that gathered you in. He didn’t linger sentimentally over the second movement, yet it was tender. The third movement was joyful, rather than sprightly.

It would be easy to say he played soulfully because he has spent more than half a century with this music. (Like The Beatles, he was introduced to America on “The Ed Sullivan Show” – but six years earlier, in 1958.) Or that he empathized with the composer, a fellow Jew, because some Semitic strain in the piece spoke to him. Perlman loves klezmer tunes, and one bit in the third movement sounded like a burst of folk music.

For whatever reason, he played the concerto as I’ve never heard it before in live performance or nearly a dozen recordings. In so doing, he turned around a concert that had been trundling stodgily along.

It opened with the overture to Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” which was relaxed and endearing (and noticeably slower than the one Christopher Warren-Green conducted not long ago as an encore).

Sadly, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 never got off the ground. The players did their jobs; the tempos weren’t excessive. But Mozart needs to be loved to soar: Merely getting the notes right gets you nowhere, and the second movement seemed to last forever.

Perhaps that was the difference in Perlman’s playing: He loves the Mendelssohn, and that made us love it, too. The orchestra fell under his spell, playing with extra delicacy and renewed zest as he cast a spell across the entire hall.

There was no encore. In this case, there didn’t need to be.

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