To get the truest sense of how great a draw violinist Itzhak Perlman is, forget the fact that his performance of the Mendelssohn violin concerto with the Baltimore Symphony last night was sold out. Instead, consider the number of empty seats in the Meyerhoff for the second half of the concert -- the part that came after Perlman played.
Of course, it could be that those who left did so because they can't stand Bartok, whose "Concerto for Orchestra" capped the concert. But if they assumed the Bartok wouldn't measure up to the Mendelssohn, they guessed wrong. By leaving early, they missed the better of the two concertos.
It wasn't just that conductor Alan Gilbert's rendering of the Bartok was vivid and virtuosic, brilliantly illuminating the composition's structure and deftly exploiting the orchestra's coloristic strengths. The reason the Bartok concerto outshone the Mendelssohn was that Perlman played so poorly.
Of course, "playing poorly" for a virtuoso of his caliber is still pretty impressive. The Mendelssohn concerto is famously dramatic and showy, a work that demands as much lyricism and tonal beauty as strength and dexterity. Perlman gave an appropriately lachrymose feel to the mournfully melodic opening statement, and dispatched the first movement's quicksilver arpeggios with apparent ease.
But his intonation was surprisingly slipshod. Granted, few listeners expect every note in a piece this demanding to be perfectly in tune, and some of the greatest violinists (Nathan Milstein springs to mind) would often play with pitch to enhance the emotional character of their interpretation.
Unfortunately, it was hard to discern any underlying purpose in Perlman's bad notes -- or many of the good ones, either. For every moment of technical brilliance -- the cadenza in the first movement, the brisk double-stops in the second -- there seemed another two where his playing was careless, self-indulgent, or both.
Gilbert gamely went along with his soloist's capriciousness, but even he had a hard time keeping up as Perlman rushed through large chunks of the final movement. It made for an impressive noise, and the physical effort involved was great. But as music making, it was sloppy and second-rate -- hardly the sort of performance one expects from such a celebrated soloist.
Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" opened the concert, and although Gilbert's interpretation exhibited many of the same strengths as in the Bartok -- clarity, attention to detail, and a vivid sense of instrumental texture -- the effect was less impressive. Gilbert seems to assume our friend the faun liked to sleep in, and as such took an exceptionally lugubrious tempo, which made it difficult for the flute and horn to maintain Debussy's sustained opening phrases.