Symphony Center Presents resumed its strike-interrupted season on Wednesday night with violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Evgeny Kissin offering a program of repertoire standards. The pairing of Kissin, who, in his late 40s, is no longer the youthful sensation he once was, with Perlman, who, having performed as a violin soloist and chamber musician for over 60 years, is an institution, follows last year’s pairing of Kissin with the Emerson String Quartet. It is nice to hear Kissin exploring the chamber music repertoire, adding his excellent piano playing to chamber music heavyweights. This year’s installment was delightful. Like last year, Kissin will be following-up this performance with a solo performance of his own.
The concert opened with a brilliant violin sonata in D-major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote dozens of works for violin and keyboard, even at a very early age. By the time the 21-year-old composer wrote this one, K. 306, he had already written 22 other violin sonatas. The earliest pieces, written at the tender age of six, predominantly focused on the keyboard with violin offering accompaniment. Mozart’s emerging maturity showed off big time in this work, both in the music’s expressiveness and in the equal roles given the two instruments.
From the sonata’s opening flourish Perlman and Kissin captured the music’s brilliance, showing depth with a very gentle approach to the quieter secondary theme. Kissin was especially effective when reproducing Mozartian runs with every note given an identical touch. Perlman and Kissin’s subtlety carried over into the slower middle movement, where they passed melodies back and forth as if they’d been doing it together for years. The sonata’s finale marvelously mixes march-like passages with ribald outbursts. It is eerily reminiscent of the finale of the D-major violin concerto, K. 218, the teenage Mozart had written 5 years previously. Perlman and Kissin gave it a genteel feel as they effortlessly moved from bravado to frolic.
The next work on the program has very different feel and outlook from the Mozart. This work, the second violin sonata by Johannes Brahms in A-major, op. 100, shows off this romantic composer’s mellower side. While the work certainly has moments of tension, it is remarkable how an overall sense of calmness oozes throughout. This is a marked contrast to the two pieces that immediately surround it in the Brahms cannon, a cello sonata in F-major, op 99, and a piano trio in c-minor, op. 101. As a group, the three works explore the full range of Brahms’ talent; a concert devoted solely to these three works would certainly be of interest.
The violin sonata starts with a quiet melodic passage of piano chords with the violin answering with brief whiffs of melody. Perlman and Kissin approached it with fluidity that yielded a robust build-up to the dreamy, yet climactic secondary theme. Their ensemble interaction came through in the middle section that explores the themes in a very calm and reflective way. The second movement starts with an airy melody that Perlman warmly played, while Kissin offered quiet accompaniment. They provided a nice contrast with faster, up-tempo middle sections. The overall performance was excellent enough to overlook Kissin’s muffed run at the very end of the second movement.
After intermission, attention turned to Ludwig van Beethoven’s so-called Kreutzer Sonata in A-major, op. 47. As Beethoven’s music moved between his early period, characterized by adherence to the models set down by Haydn and Mozart, into a middle period that represented a definitive break with the past, there are a handful of works that seem to be transitions. The Kreutzer Sonata is one of the last of these. In addition to offering expanded forms and higher levels of intensity, it explored an unexpected key signature in the opening movement. While the brief introduction is in the work’s overall key of A-major, it quickly heads into a tempest in a-minor. This movement offers a large hint of what was to come from Beethoven’s pen within a year or two.
Perlman opened with wonderfully bright chords on his violin. After the piano’s response, there is a quick transition into the main section where Perlman and Kissin carefully moved into the fast presto. This movement goes through many shifts in tempo, mood, and feeling, and Perman and Kissin captured them wonderfully, best illustrated in the run-up to the secondary theme. At several places Kissin wonderfully juxtaposed bass melodies played on left hand with higher notes on the violin. Meanwhile, the right hand quietly and smoothly offered rills.
After the Kreutzer Sonata’s powerful opening movement, the last two movements are a bit of a come down. The middle movement is an extended set of variations on a lengthy theme. While pleasant and varied, it gets bogged down. Perlman and Kissin gave it everything they could on Wednesday night, taking advantage of the many opportunities the variations present to showcase excellent technique. Perlman was especially effective playing the violin’s top most notes crisply and clearly on several occasions. Both he and Kissin illustrated their ability to shift mood and dynamic range subtly and quickly.
Following several well deserved ovations, Perlman and Kissin played two encores that contrasted nicely with the programmed works. First was Lensky’s aria from Act II of Peter Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, in an arrangement by Leopold Auer. Next, they offered, Manuel De Falla’s Danse Espagnole from La vida breve, arranged by Fritz Kreisler.
Evgeny Kissin returns to Symphony Center with a program of Chopin, Schumann, Debussy, and Scriabin. Sunday, May 12, at 3pm. Click here for more information and tickets.