Music: Itzhak Perlman, RFH, London

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The Independent Culture
Any Itzhak Perlman concert starts from the vantage-point of audience respect - whether for physical self-overcoming, or a much-loved personality, or for a violin sound that remains among the most luscious on the current circuit. And Thursday's 50th birthday event was certainly no exception. Yoel Levi set things in motion with a rip-roaring account of Bernstein's Candide overture: the pace was fast, the Philharmonia excelled in every department, while Levi himself traced an elegant, remarkably clear beat. Once primed, the audience drew breath for the penultimate lap in Perlman's concerto marathon. Applause crescendoed as Perlman and Levi exchanged baton and violin before launching into what is surely the loveliest of 20th-century violin concertos. Samuel Barber's lyrical bent is evident right from the first bars, a wistful, winding theme that Perlman sang from the heart and Levi cushioned with warmth and restraint.

Beyond the first movement's bittersweet dialogue (and a few patches of tonal discoloration from the soloist) came the deeply confessional Andante, a sure-fire rival to Barber's celebrated Adagio for strings that inspired a molten stream of sumptuous tone. The oboe sang first then, mid-way through the movement, Perlman took over, his playing as rich, vibrant and finely graded as any heard on the South Bank in recent years. Audience reaction between the second and third movements suggested widespread involvement, whereas the quietly virtuosic Presto in moto perpetuo finale (always a bit of a musical let-down) had Perlman spinning a quick-fire spiccato.

Beyond the interval, Tchaikovsky's Concerto was graced by a shapely orchestral introduction and a soaring solo entrance. It was a regal display which, although minutely flawed, suggested a wider range of colour than I remembered from Perlman's recordings of the work. In fact, once back home, I revisited his 1978 EMI CD (under Ormandy) for that capricious variation on the main theme that falls mid-way between the first movement's central tutti and confirmed that the concert performance had indeed been much more playful. The finale, too, donned a genuine smile - in the recurring Russian dance motive, for example, where Perlman's chuckling characterisation and devil- may-care spontaneity paid highest dividends. Come to think of it, that's precisely what impressed me most about the concert: Perlman's new-found sense of daring, his willingness to "let go" and indulge the moment - something I hadn't always felt about his older performances and recordings. And to turn dare-devil at 50, now that must be worth celebrating.

Perlman plays Sibelius and Mendelssohn 7.30pm tonight RFH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-928 8800)