Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Emanuel Ax returned to the stage where, earlier this month, each had performed as soloist (and, in Perlman’s case, conductor) with the San Francisco Symphony for an evening of chamber music. The results could not have been more delightful. Even when both his solo recitals and his concert appearances have shown signs of being on the distant side, Perlman always seems to approach the opportunity to perform with others in a chamber music setting with both delight and relish; and he seems to have been doing this for the pleasure of audiences at least since the earliest days of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
The program itself was a survey of familiar ground. Indeed, the metric of familiarity is that each of the three works on the program was part of the legacy of recordings that Jascha Heifetz made for RCA Victor. Nevertheless, from the very first bars of the opening selection by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the K. 296 sonata in C major, it was clear that this would be an evening of fresh insights, rather than reflections on past traditions. If, as a conductor a little over two weeks ago, Perlman the conductor never quite got the hang, not to mention the humor, of Mozart’s K. 183 symphony in G minor, last night Perlman the violinist, with Ax as his partner, not only “got” the many nuances and humorous turns in Mozart’s sonata but also relished them with overt enthusiasm in his rhetorical delivery. This is very much a give-and-take sonata treating both parts as equals, even when the violin has to grind out repeated notes when allowing the piano to take its turn with the melodic material; and it is virtually impossible to avoid cracking a smile each time Mozart effects a role-reversal. The real joy in this music was for the players, but both Perlman and Ax knew how to share that joy with the audience.
Much of that joyous energy also pervaded the next selection, Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 13 (first) sonata in A major. This sonata was a relatively early effort in Fauré’s career as a composer, and it was his first piece of chamber music. However, he was 31 at the time (1876) and had previously established himself as a church organist and as a teacher. It would be a bit of a misrepresentation to call the surging textures that begin this sonata “youthful.” Rather, as had been the case with Mozart before him, Fauré was exploring a new domain of relationships between violin and piano that go beyond relegating the piano to accompanist status.
Much later in life, Fauré would use his bully pulpit as director of the Conservatoire de Paris to champion the rising modernists at the beginning of the twentieth century. Considering his commitment to seeking out new ways of saying things through music a quarter-century earlier, his advocacy should not be surprising. During his tenure he cleaned out a lot of the cobwebs at the Conservatoire, but that spirit of getting beyond tradition and moving to new rhetorics of expression is already very much evident in his first violin sonata. Both Perlman and Ax clearly appreciated the freshness of this music for its time and succeeded in keeping that music fresh well over a century later.
The second half of the program was devoted to Richard Strauss’ Opus 18 sonata in E-flat major. This was part of a youthful surge of interest in chamber music that took place in Strauss’ late teens. (One has to be careful in applying the adjective “youthful” to Strauss, since he wrote his first song at the age of six.) The violin sonata marked the end of that surge; and 1888, the year in which it was composed, was also the year of Strauss’ first tone poem, “Don Juan,” and the beginning of his preference for the lush sonorities of a full orchestra.
The sonata itself shows Strauss’ ability to honor traditional forms while resisting the constraint of those forms. Teachers often like to talk about Johannes Brahms’ “deceptive” approach to recapitulation. In the first movement of his violin sonata, Strauss keeps you guessing about whether or not he has committed to recapitulation until the second theme finally reflects its initial appearance in the exposition. He then calls his second movement “Improvisation.” Naturally, it is not really an improvisation for the violin soloist; but, once again, the listener is left guessing about whether Strauss may have invented the whole movement through improvisation and then committed everything to paper.
Nevertheless, there is a sense that Strauss was being dutifully retrospective where Fauré had been forward-looking (and Mozart was just enjoying playing with the materials at his disposal). Perlman and Ax seemed to wish to honor that dutifulness in their interpretation. Thus, while there were definitely moments to tweak the imagination, there was also a sense of doing one’s best to honor an honest effort by the young Strauss that was not really in his comfort zone. Both Perlman and Ax wanted to convince that this music deserved attention but never managed to find enough sparks in their approach to make their case.
Nevertheless, plenty of sparks would then fly during the encores. As with animals in a zoo at feeding time, the audience was almost frenzied in their demands to hear more; and they were reward with four encores. The first was the G minor (second) Larghetto movement from a sonatina that Antonín Dvořák composed in New York City at the end of 1893. This is one of Dvořák’s efforts to capture American idioms (particularly those of Native Americans and African Americans) in his music. This movement was also an encore favorite for Fritz Kreisler, who called it an “Indian Lullaby.” It therefore seemed fitting that Kreisler should account for the remaining three encores, all taken from a 1905 publication generally known as Alt-Wiener Tanzweisen (old Viennese melodies), which Kreisler deliberately misattributed to Joseph Lanner. Perlman and Ax played them in the reverse order in which Schott later published them under Kreisler’s own name, beginning with “Schön Rosmarin” (fair Rosemary), followed by “Liebesleid” (love’s sorrow), and concluding with a thoroughly upbeat account of “Liebesfreud” (love’s joy).