If they ever tire of their international concert artist careers, Itzhak Perlman and Emanuel Ax could go far as a comedy team.
The duo opened the 51st season of the Harriman-Jewell Series with a recital Tuesday night in Helzberg Hall. The pair also recently recorded an album, released last week in celebration of Perlman’s 70th birthday.
Perlman and Ax were welcomed on stage with a standing ovation, the first of six throughout the evening. They performed three sonatas for violin and piano and, as an encore, a truncated comedy routine for violinist and pianist.
For the three printed selections Perlman presented forthright renditions, but didn’t match the presence of sound from the piano, his tone, at times, coming through hollow and with niggling intonation twinges. Ax’s performance was pure delight, in playing and in countenance.
Wolfgang Mozart’s Sonata No. 17 in C Major (K. 296), while pleasant and sprightly and decorated with effortless ornamentations, was marred when they didn’t end together. Gabriel Fauré’s Sonata No. 1 in A Major (Op. 13) fared better, a flood of rippling tones from Ax and urgency in the ascending line from Perlman, both musicians exhibiting a thrilling combination of sweetness and bite. They brought a robust tone and approach to Richard Strauss’ Sonata in E flat Major (Op. 18), Perlman more delicate, while Ax was thunderous and assertive.
During the encore, their comfortable camaraderie became more jovial, coinciding with a relaxed attitude and a warmer tone from Perlman.
They began with the first of Robert Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces for clarinet and piano, arranged for violin, which Perlman mentioned had a lot of likes on Facebook. For Fritz Kreisler’s “Liebeslied” Ax joked that Perlman would, in turn, perform the violin solo on clarinet. Perlman good-naturedly obliged, using his bow as a stand-in before playing (in the traditional manner) the warm and flowing waltzing tune, along with its counterpart, Kreisler’s “Liebesfreud.”
As Ax and Perlman took their final bows, Clark Morris, executive director of the series, rolled out an elaborate cake, complete with a fondant violin on top, and the thousand-strong audience sang “Happy Birthday” while affable Mr. Ax played a florid accompaniment.
A larger-than-usual crowd stayed for the post-performance artist conversation, as the pair continued to banter and quip while offering musical insights and advice.
When asked about their on-stage communication, Perlman trotted out the age-old trope about music being an international language. Ax deadpanned, “We also both speak English.”