Classical / ITZHAK PERLMAN Royal Festival Hall, London

Click to follow
It's hard to tell whether a great deal of money is being made or lost on Itzhak Perlman's series of four concerts, mystifyingly called "Itzhak Perlman 50th Birthday Concert" at the Royal Festival Hall. What is clear is that a great deal of money is shuffling around. Not even the top prices for the "Philharmonics" of Vienna or New York match Perlman's prices at pounds 55 a throw. Moving a full symphony orchestra around, particularly first class on Eurostar, naturally costs a few bob, but here we have a home-team orchestra, with a couple of American conductors - neither in the top flight of fees or interpretations - so why these prices? Perhaps, I thought, the promoters reveal a clue? Ah-ha! It's the sports-turned- arts-impresarios IMG with a few friends - Raymond Gubbay, the Daily Telegraph, and EMI Classics. So, we're not talking art, we're talking business. And very big business, without a risk (or a deserving charity) in sight. Well, at pounds 55 a head, the programmes for these four concerts had better be "accessible" - Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Sibelius, Mendelssohn. But what's this? Samuel Barber? And before the interval?

But the sad part of all this is that Perlman, on the evidence of his first "birthday" concert, didn't appear to be having much fun. This was an all-Beethoven programme - the two charming Romances for violin and orchestra, preceded by a stirring account of "Coriolan" followed by the D major concerto. It's somehow reassuring that even an artist as great as Itzhak Perlman can have an off-night. Not that the capacity audience seemed to notice, or to want to notice, but at those prices, who would? Perlman's visible "phew" at the end of the Beethoven concerto seemed to sum it up.

Appropriately, perhaps, for an event fabricated by a sports promoter, it was all rather like watching one of those Wimbledon finals when the ball always seems to misbehave - bouncing oddly, clipping the net, falling on the wrong side of the line. Time and time again, it was so clear that Perlman was trying to catch the elusive muse - a change of fingering and string to "point" a phrase, only to land with shaky intonation and a squeaky string. And, each time, Perlman seemed to retreat into touch.

His sound is enormous, and Lawrence Foster's balance between soloist and orchestra had the soloist winning hand down. But the sound is so uniform, so glassy, so predictable. Where were the gradations of colour, varieties of articulation, moments of revelation? What, in fact, was the hurry?

Only in the slow movement of the Beethoven concerto were there moments of real "correctness" where Perlman finally succeeded in bringing into focus both his sound and his vision. Foster, as accompanist, was sensitive if a bit nervy, while the Philharmonia's wind, particularly the warbling bassoons, the hushed strings and the springy trumpets, should have provided as secure a base as any great soloist might need. But this was an uncomfortable night.

n 13, 15 & 17 June at RFH (0171-928 8800)