Updated Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 11:31 AM
An almost-capacity audience greeted violinist Itzhak Perlman Tuesday night at Benaroya Hall when he whizzed out on stage in his wheelchair, which he maneuvered gracefully in a swoop so that the controls were out of his way when he began to play. With him was pianist Rohan De Silva, a frequent musical collaborator who has toured for years with the violinist.
The two were equal partners in the first half of the program, where both Beethoven and Franck in their respective sonatas gave as great a role to the piano as to the violin.
In Beethoven’s Sonata No 1 in D Major from Opus 12, Perlman’s tone was sweet, silvery, but never lush, his vibrato present but unobtrusive. Sensibly, the piano lid was raised only a few inches, keeping the balance more equal between the two.
The partnership between the two musicians is as though they breathe together. Rarely does one hear such perfect synchronization of phrasing and expression, and De Silva, while playing substantial harmony at times, never overwhelmed Perlman’s light tone.
The sonata could so easily have been a vehicle for showing off technique, and here it was much more showing off how it might have been played in Beethoven’s time, probably in someone’s living room. One could hear every note — hear how Beethoven brought first one instrument to the fore, then the other.
Franck’s Sonata in A Major is similarly a fine one for pianist as well as violinist, full of melody. The piano part is as busy and melodic as the violin, fireworks are present, and thee are many cadenzalike passages in a dialogue between instruments where both musicians allowed the melodies to flow out. Plenty of dynamic range and expressiveness came through from the two musicians, but never by pushing the instruments to their limits, always letting the music speak for itself.
One of the first works to be known as demanding incredible virtuosity from the violinist is Tartini’s Sonata in G Minor, the “Devil’s Trill,” which Perlman took on after intermission in an arrangement by Fritz Kreisler. Composed in 1745, it is loaded with trills, and requires playing on more than one string at a time all over the instrument at warp speed. The pianist merely adds some simple chordal structure underneath. Perlman played it with ease while giving it its musical due, delighting the audience.
From then on, often with humorous asides, he announced short selections from the stage, many of them also requiring this kind of virtuosity: Wieniawski, John Williams, Brahms, as well as other little-known composers, ending with what he described as a “flashy” piece by Antonio Bazzini. Flashy it was, but probably great fun to play — if you could — and fun to hear. Very fast and light, it took all kinds of bowing techniques and technical wizardry. Perlman, now 67, played all these with perfect control and minimal bow, not wasting any unnecessary energy, but creating exquisite renderings, one after another, De Silva with him all the way.