CLASSICAL MUSIC / A smooth ride going nowhere: Itzhak Perlman - Barbican

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The Independent Culture
When a performer achieves icon status, all he or she has to do is walk on to the stage and half the audience is already transported. The violinist Itzhak Perlman may not have risen to that height yet, but he is probably, after Yehudi Menuhin, the violinist who springs most readily to the average British music-lover's mind. His Barbican Hall recital on Thursday was packed, and there was never any doubt that the applause at the end would be rapturous. But what was the audience clapping - a musical experience or a reputation?

In many ways Perlman is still the outstanding fiddler he was when he first made the headlines in the 1960s. The tone is sweet and rich, the action strong and agile, the tuning acute - the tricky double-stopped melody in the first movement of the Poulenc emerged with hardly a blemish. Even in the Barbican, where chamber music can sound pitifully small, he is a commanding player: you could imagine his pianissimo reaching to the back of the Carnegie Hall.

But a great performance is not a solo act. It's a relationship between the performer and the composer - and if there's a responsive, musical audience there too, so much the better. Perlman's playing in Mozart's Sonata in C (K296) and in Faure's Sonata No 1 was like a ride in a Rolls-Royce; so smooth that you hardly notice the country you are passing through. Sometimes the playing came to life - a strongly shaped phrase here, a sudden impassioned gesture there, or the fleeting moment in the scherzo of the Faure where the rich Perlman vibrato ceased and an other-worldly coolness momentarily took over - if only there had been more moments like that.

On the whole, though, it was musically opaque. Even in the Poulenc - an enigmatic, challenging piece - the expression rarely went much below the surface. And there was surprisingly little sense of true chamber-music dialogue between Perlman and his pianist, Bruno Canino. In the quick-fire piano-violin exchanges at the start of the scherzo of the Faure there was hardly a spark: Perlman played like an orchestral violinist, intent on his music stand and nothing else.

If there are readers throwing up their hands in disbelief at this, I wish I could convey them back to the Guarneri Trio's performance of Smetana's Piano Trio in the Wigmore Hall last Tuesday. Here was chamber-playing with tension, emotional penetration, subtle articulation and freshness, bringing a work in a style often considered faded back to full, radiant life. There's a message here: never take greatness for granted.