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Perlman on the podium

01/27/2009 -  & January 29, 2009
Felix Mendelssohn: Octet, op. 20 (version for string orchestra)
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 2, op. 73

Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, Itzhak Perlman (conductor)

Plenty of instrumental soloists have become distinguished conductors, Barenboim, Eschenbach and Ashkenazy, to name but a few. The transition does not, however, appear to be an easy one and this concert, sadly, proved the point.

In the first half we heard Mendelssohn’s Octet, a strong contender for the greatest work ever written by a teenager, in an orchestra version, 5 desks of first violins, 5 desks of second violins, 5 desks of violas, 5 desks of cellos and 2 desks of double basses. And there’s the rub: this of itself robbed the piece of any emotional heat and passion; there was too much emphasis on ensemble. This prevented any single player from displaying individual flair and there could be little regard for quick-changing dynamics. Without the emotional charge or “edge”, it simply was not gripping. The second movement was utterly lifeless and soporific. Perlman certainly ensured the players played together and they appeared to enjoy the experience, judging from the smiles during the music from one player to another, particularly from the principal cellist Thomas Grossenbacher. There were however fewer smiles in the audience.

The second half brought us Brahms’ Second Symphony, his pastoral masterpiece. The first movement Allegro non troppo was sluggish, albeit we enjoyed fine playing from the cellos, principal flute and principal horn. The second movement, an Adagio non troppo, was plain dull. Perlman’s sunny temperament and ease did help the quieter passages; entries were mainly secure, and the orchestra played well generally. The third movement Allegretto grazioso gave us mellifluous oboe playing from the orchestra’s principal, but in the final movement Perlman kept restraining the orchestra, both in terms of tempo and dynamics. One could not help feeling that whilst, of course, he knew how the music went, he could not lift the performance to the next level which leaves one leaving the concert on a high. It was all rather tepid and plodding; neither incisive, crisp nor distinctive. The final bars lacked exhilaration or even uplift, and there had been no luxuriance in the strings early on. Only the fleet-footed Scherzo had displayed a pleasing scamper.

This concert did nothing to establish Perlman as a serious conductor.

John Rhodes



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