Rethinking Itzhak Perlman on the eve of his 70th birthday

Rethinking Itzhak Perlman on the eve of his 70th birthday
Itzhak Perlman performs at the Barclays Center on Feb. 28, 2013, in New York City. (James Devaney, WireImage)

Honey-toned. Velvety. A golden sound. These are just some of the terms that generations of music lovers have used to compliment the violin playing of Itzhak Perlman. For nearly five decades, the marquee virtuoso, one of concert music's most charming emissaries, has infused his playing with sweetness and ease that can smooth out the most unruly passages, infusing masterworks with rich life.

So it's important as Perlman approaches his 70th birthday in August, especially as many of my younger, cultured colleagues outside music have copped to not knowing anything about him, to remind some readers that America once had household-name violinists. And that in his prime as a virtuoso performer — say, the 1960s through the 1990s — Perlman was often the one that American music fans went to for high-quality recordings of the great composers' violin compositions.


In May, Deutsche Gramophone jumped on this idea, releasing a $78 boxed set of 25 previously released Perlman DG and Decca CDs — obviously, most attractive to Perlman fans who still use stereo components and prefer to own music rather than stream it.

A joyful Israeli prodigy televised by Ed Sullivan in 1958 — thanks in part to how it would look to watch the 13-year-old polio survivor who could not stand as he performed — Perlman became a student of violin technique's modernization, as disseminated by Juilliard's Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay. This meant fewer French- and Russian-style slides, a cleaner bow arm and one sincerely huge sound.

Perlman, along with others like fellow Israeli Pinchas Zukerman, was a natural outgrowth of the Golden Era soloist — say, Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein. As such, he worked to depersonalize the most over-stylized interpretations. No offense to Heifetz (I'm a fan), but suddenly Beethoven didn't sound like "Heifetz-Beethoven," for example, but more like Beethoven itself. Perlman and Zukerman began to build on the more selfless interpretations of older players such as Henryk Szeryng, Arthur Grumiaux and David Oistrakh. They created a meaningful sweet spot between showing off and showing gravitas.

As a New York violinist who was born to and studied with Perlman's Juilliard peers, I was his target audience. Perlman and Zukerman were introduced to me like sports stars, and I was often taken as a treat to hear them play. Before hitting my teens, I vacillated between Perlman and Zukerman (yin and yang). Zukerman had the darker sound and more bad-ass approach; Perlman was the more ebullient.

But Perlman was the most comfortable as a showman and violin ambassador. He could be on PBS' "Live From Lincoln Center" and "Sesame Street," and he was happy to help in the evolution of the klezmer, and recorded the theme to "Schindler's List."

As such, it wasn't cool in Tanglewood's high school program to dig Perlman recordings (so we experimented with his past and our future). And Perlman has gotten a bad rap from some music aficionados, who've complained for years of his populist bent: that his vibrato is always on, an unchanging, wide-oscillating espressivo machine, or that he's been too concerned with connecting with audiences to be an innovative interpreter.

I don't agree with those views, but I'll come clean. As a thirtysomething in 2015, I often prefer the playing of other violinists despite Perlman's influence on me. Take Gidon Kremer, at 68, Perlman's peer, for his inventive, visceral Bach, Beethoven and everything else. Then there are younger, innovative players skillful with classic and new music alike: Leonidas Kavakos, Christian Tetzlaff, Leila Josefowicz, Lara St. John, Miranda Cuckson and Johnny Gandelsman — not to mention a young rising class influenced by these musicians who explore the violin with more salt, coolness, acid and the fusion of historically informed approaches.

Today, Perlman may sound too romantic, even schmaltzy, to on-trend listeners. But it's the intelligently emotive playing and virtuosity of violinists like Perlman, to say nothing of his specific voice and ability to serve as a generous leader, that has helped push these intriguing players to love great music and develop new approaches.

CD collection

To be fair, it's impossible to review 25 CDs together, much less 25 CDs that mostly received positive feedback in their day. Most of these recordings maintain considerable value for anyone who wants to hear bravura playing. The collection begins with a demonstrative recording of Berg's modern violin concerto, and it moves into a lyrically bopping take on Stravinsky's. Here, Perlman shows us how organically he works with orchestras and how he can architect harmonically and stylistically innovative scores.

The heart of the set is the finely etched recordings of the Mozart violin concertos — the highlight of which is Perlman and Zukerman playing the Sinfonia Concertante together — performed with elegance, if a little more vibrato and weight than today's players employ. A hefty dose of Mozart's sonatas with pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim leads to Beethoven sonatas performed with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy.

And if you don't know it, Perlman and Ashkenazy's recording of Beethoven's intense Kreutzer Sonata, made by a 28-year-old Perlman, was a rebellious hit in 1973. Then there's Vivaldi's Four Seasons and showpieces and concertos such as Ravel's Tzigane, Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy and Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole.

DG works hard to ratchet its count up to 25. Perlman playing Bach cantatas with soprano Kathleen Battle (untraditional soloist repertoire) is well liked, but I'd prefer a vervier, lighter, more historically conscious approach. What's stellar is the chamber music: many of the sonatas, including those by Debussy and Franck, as well as the Brahms Horn Trio and Ravel's piano trio. But then you see Lynn Harrell playing the Debussy Cello Sonata with Ashkenazy alone, and you feel cheated. DG could have created new discs for a leaner Perlman-only set. There also are recordings of Perlman conducting former student Ilya Gringolts in the Tchaikovsky and first Shostakovich concertos: pieces I'd want to hear Perlman play.


Perlman is an able conductor and a fine teacher to lucky students at Juilliard and his own summer program now. But these inclusions remind you that this is an expensive product designed to showcase a label's archive. Not getting an example of Perlman playing Tchaikovsky and certain other key works in a gargantuan set devoted to his life is like not getting "Kind of Blue" in a Miles Davis retrospective.

Many of Perlman's best recordings — his "American Album" (including a spirited recording of Leonard Bernstein's Serenade and Samuel Barber's concerto) as well as concertos by Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and others — were recorded for EMI, which released a Perlman set in 2004. Perlman has also recorded for RCA and Sony, and the latter label released one of his great contributions: his 1989 recording of the Brahms sonatas with Barenboim.

To get Perlman's best, you have to cherry-pick, whether it's on iTunes or eBay — or even better, a used record and CD store. But I'm glad there's a new set of higher-quality recordings to give us occasion to discuss Perlman's legacy.


Perlman has been an inspiration to myriad musicians as well as anyone with physical or medical challenges. He also helped extend the era of broad appreciation for the violin among those less admiring of classical music. Today, there may be a waning interest in the sound of the violin, which many people used to consider sweet but now associate with sappiness and headaches. Maybe others will make it more popular in our everyday lives again. I'd just hate for anyone to forget (or never learn about) Perlman's warmth and authority and how he pushed modern violin playing forward while paying respect to the virtuoso tradition.

Perlman is still a concertizer, due to play here again in January, and even if concertgoers do not experience the "perfection" so valued by our data culture, they'll experience a great humanity.

The last time I wrote about him for this newspaper was 10 years ago, when he played Disney Hall. As he performed Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata, the fire alarm rang and terror took over the audience. In response, Perlman joked about getting "many signs from Beethoven over the years" and calmed nerves. It's his character, more than how much vibrato he uses in Bach, that should endure.