Is it the size of the fee or the size of the audience that determines a 3,000-seat concert hall as appropriate for a violin recital? Itzhak Perlman is not a frequent recital soloist on these shores, so a large crowd piled into the Royal Festival Hall to witness an artist described in the programme as "undeniably the reigning virtuoso of the violin". Sure, he has got the fingers - he always did have - but virtuosity alone leaves much to desire.
Early Beethoven - his first "real" violin sonata (Op 12, No 1) - calls for little virtuosity, but it does call for heaps of musicianship if it is to be raised from the ordinary. But, somehow, Perlman remained so disengaged. Perhaps it was the enormous, bleakly empty platform with not a bowl of flowers or a pot-plant in sight that depressed his spirits.
Perlman is obliged to sit, consequently requiring greater energy to communicate to an audience than might otherwise be the case. But hugging his music stand and being out of eye contact with both us and his pianist was not encouraging. There can be few more elegant and sensitive accompanists than Bruno Canino, but his anxious glances toward Perlman went unmet - surely a danger in chamber-music-playing.
In this slight Beethoven, the ear was constantly drawn to the springy playing of Canino, who gave much character and expression to this Mozartian piece. Even in the delightful final rondo, buoyant with cross-rhythms, Perlman never rose to Canino's skipping.
César Franck's great A major Sonata followed. It had been curious in the Beethoven that Canino was playing the piano open on half-stick, but it became incredible that for the Franck, such a romantic piece, the stick remained firmly in the same place.
Canino, unsurprisingly, never swamped Perlman, but both were underpowered. Where was the passion of the second-movement Allegro? Why, in this huge hall, was it all so reined in? Has Perlman's sound become something of infinite sweetness but no strength? Is it that he's become bored with the repetitive demands of the world's great concert halls and his slavishly adoring public that laps up whatever is on offer? Is it that he now fails to rise to the occasion because he knows that his public will accept everything he does?
After the interval, one work only was scheduled: Debussy's quixotic Sonata for Violin and Piano. Quite legitimately, this work can be regarded as a miniature, and tone colour, rather than dynamic range, appeared to be Perlman's approach. But perhaps he was saving himself up for the "additional works will be announced from the platform" section. And here's where the circus really began.
The page-turner appeared laden with music. "These are props: we only know one piece," Perlman proclaimed, proceeding to rifle through pages of print. "This one's marked 'very difficult', so we won't play it." But tearaway performances of half a dozen bonnes bouches brought the house down. Perhaps size doesn't matter.