Veteran performers prove there's more to music than the notes

We should treasure our senior performers for the traditions they represent and have embodied for the better part of this century. I think particularly of two masters I heard in successive evenings recently, both octogenarians - the violinist Nathan Milstein and the pianist Claudio Arrau. The former was raised and trained in Russia, the latter is Chilean, musically formed in Europe.

Both played Beethoven for their rare concerto appearances here. Milstein offered the Violin Concerto at an Avery Fisher Hall pension fund benefit concert for the New York Philharmonic, with Erich Leinsdorf at the helm; Arrau was heard in the Fifth Concerto, the ``Emperor,'' with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, David Zinman conducting.

Milstein's first entrance was enough to set one's teeth on edge - wiry and out of tune. But when things settled down, one was finally able to hear beyond the various problems. Then the framework of an absorbing interpretation unfolded - one based on the assumption that this music means something more than the aggregation of its notes.

Arrau, with the Philadelphia, also showed how to look beyond the notes to create something unique. Both musicians base their approaches on sound and technical mastery that is then subsumed in the pursuit of purely musical values. They both believe that making music is just as important as spinning notes, and that communicating profundity is more important than communicating proficiency. They have spent their lives refining and honing their insights, and, thanks to recordings, we can get an idea of how those views have changed over the years.

Arrau had better support for his New York performance. The Philadelphia is a lavish ensemble, even though there were moments when the unsuitably large forces threatened to swamp him. But few pianists have ever equaled him in terms of limpidity of runs, in creating moods in slow music, and in telegraphing subtext. Zinman's accompaniment was proficient. The sheer spontaneity of Arrau's earlier recordings is no longer a part of his makeup, but it is repaced with a touching deliberation that only heightens the sense of mystery and magic.

It is these qualities that make his new ``Emperor'' performance, now released on Philips, so special. In fact, it is one of the finest ``Emperors'' in terms of mood and communication, and the conductor, Sir Colin Davis, is on Arrau's wavelength in every aspect. If the entire cycle of concertos lives up to this handsomely recorded first release (digital CD, 416 215-2, with the Dresden Staatskapelle) we will have a document of unusual value and importance.

The Milstein performance did not really jell. The soloist seemed unable to settle down quickly enough, and Leinsdorf seemed rather flustered throughout. (He even nearly miscued the orchestra during the first movement cadenza.) The flashes of brilliance - and there were many - reminded us of a school of playing that will be essentially extinct when Milstein finally stops playing. Not surprisingly, they occurred in the introspective pages, where he had time to weigh certain notes, change the stress of a phrase, and do the sort of subtle things that add up to a sensitive reading.

Milstein's most recent Beethoven concerto recording dates back to the early '60s, with Leinsdorf conducting the Philharmonia (currently not available). One can only hope that this EMI/Angel performance will be put out on a mid-priced CD very soon. It is particularly elegant, full of nuance, shading, and richness. Leinsdorf is a thoughtful, caring partner, and the Philharmonia plays magnificently.

Itzhak Perlman, who is widely (and justifiably) celebrated for his reading of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, offered the work unexpectedly as a last-minute replacement for Jon Vickers at a Sunday afternoon Toronto Symphony concert in Carnegie Hall. Vickers's cancellation and Perlman's agreeing to fill in meant that the renowned virtuoso was heard twice here instead of once this season. And since he and conductor Andrew Davis had played the concerto the preceding weekend in Toronto, the performance was still fresh.

Not surprisingly, Perlman was technically remarkable. In matters of sheer gloss, sheen, and dynamic control, his performance was incomparable. But it lacked anything behind or beyond the notes. Nor could the fussy, rather pedantic conducting of Davis be entirely blamed for creating this musical aridity, since it was Perlman who was calling the shots. He simply seemed interested in making pretty, if somewhat thin, tones and showing how much control he has over the dynamic spectrum.

What a difference between this performance and his recording (EMI/Angel, digital CD, CDC 7 47002) with Carlo Maria Giulini and the Philharmonia Orchestra, taped in '81. On that occasion, the Italian maestro challenged Perlman to great musicmaking, which only proves that he has it in him.

I for one look forward to the day when Perlman will finally escape the trappings of superstardom and take his rightful place as a legendary musicial interpreter, rather than just an itinerant fiddler of outstanding technical facility.

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