Handsome, spry, and arriving onstage at the Kimmel Center in a nifty scooter on Tuesday, Itzhak Perlman played a recital that was a complicated case of musical decline.
Having successfully addressed some physiological upper-body problems that had been affecting his playing, the 66-year-old violinist can still be technically formidable, bring audiences to their feet, make them laugh at his jokes, and leave them thinking they've experienced the name-brand violinist.
But Perlman, having played recitals since age 10, may be battling burnout, the main evidence being his lifeless playing in the first and more substantial half of his recital. Most of the notes were there, but that was it.
Schubert's Rondeau Brilliant was the recital's throat clearer - nothing too challenging and extremely minor Schubert. Perlman made his way through the piece's middling note spinning with so little feeling that the music seemed more pedestrian than it is.
Brahms' Violin Sonata No. 2 (Op. 100), one of the great pieces in the literature, was especially maddening. Pianist Rohan de Silva molded the opening chords with discreet originality and a fair amount of poetry - to which Perlman seemed quite immune, playing with a pale tone and humdrum sameness. Even passages when the violin is supporting the piano, Perlman was too loud and rather hamfisted, and seemed to lack even the slightest awareness of how he fit into the larger scheme of the piece.
Time and again, I asked myself what I would think of this performance were it by an unknown violinist. Answer: I would depart in despair. Also, you couldn't help noticing that near the end of each movement, some of his tone would return and his playing took a sense of pulse that was previously lacking. Whether or not one reads cynical motives into this, 30 seconds of life at the end of each movement isn't enough.
A different Perlman emerged in the second half. Saint-Saens' seldom-played but thoroughly winning Violin Sonata No. 1 was the main piece, and had Perlman quite engaged. The first movement gives the violin a lot of long-held notes while the pianist busily recalls some of the more distinctive piano writing in Carnival of the Animals.
But that doesn't mean Perlman had it easy. Such long-held notes have to account for themselves with a kind of presence and amplitude that doesn't happen if the performer is phoning it in - and clearly, Perlman was not. He went on to toss off the final movement's bravura writing without seeming to break a sweat. What a contrast that was with the first half, when he seemed to be tagging along with Brahms, lethargic and hesitant. The encores, many of them light Fritz Kreisler pieces, consistently sparkled.
For some listeners, a half-good recital was good enough. Yet there were also more empty seats at Verizon Hall than I ever imagined I would see at a Perlman recital. And will the people who came away seemingly satisfied return to the next Perlman recital? He still commands an audience that, to judge from between-movement applause, isn't the regular classical crowd. But isn't that all the more reason for them to hear something that's consistently great by anybody's standard?
It's also worth noting that even Perlman at his most engaged was, in some respects, shown up at a 10th-anniversary intermission ceremony in which the late real estate developer Willard G. "Bill" Rouse, who was instrumental in the building of the Kimmel Center, was honored by former state governor and Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell. Rouse's widow, Susannah Dennison Rouse, accepted the award and, in a poised but emotional speech, assured Philadelphians that they will wake up tomorrow "in the greatest city in the world." Whether or not one agrees, moments don't get any more authentic than that.