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Itzhak Perlman - Virtuoso Violinist
Christopher Nupen (director)
Peter Heelas (editor),
David Findlay (camera)
DVD: All regions 2008
Experience Classicsonline

“Each subject is unique”, says Christopher Nupen, “and so each film is different”. Allegro documentaries grow organically, so to speak. Filming takes place over a period of many years, and the result only evolves at the end of the process. Subjects and film-makers become so close over the period that those being filmed are unusually at ease in front of the camera. What’s captured on film is thus remarkably spontaneous and natural. This is very different indeed from “auteur” film-making, where some preconceived formula dictates the final result. This new Allegro release, featuring Itzhak Perlman, reveals the artist as a human being. Of course one doesn’t “need” to know the man behind the music to appreciate his virtuosity. But this film isn’t just about Perlman. It’s more about the way a performer grows and develops, gaining the maturity and insight that goes into what he plays. 

Perlman is very different from Jacqueline du Pré. Nupen’s films of Jacqueline du Pré are immortal, because Jackie illuminated everything she did by sheer force of personality. When she walked into a room, even as a gauche teenager, she had presence. As Perlman himself says in this new film, she was the kind of person who had a huge impact on all around her even when she wasn’t playing. She was charismatic because, as Perlman puts it “because she had no censor”. There was nothing between her feelings and the way she expressed herself. That directness caused some of the difficulties she encountered in life, but that was what she was. Perlman, on the other hand, is a more reserved person. That’s why this film is an interesting counterpoint to the Jackie films, because Perlman reveals himself more obliquely: the camera needs to draw him out gradually. It is a very different kind of challenge. 

The film starts, appropriately enough in tempo Allegro with two virtuoso showpieces (Bazzini and Sarasate), repertoire in which few, if any, can match Perlman’s virtuosity. Hence the title, Virtuoso Violinist. It was just such a piece, the Ravel Tzigane, which attracted the attention of his future wife. As a clumsy, insecure teenager, and still a recent immigrant, he went to a summer camp with young Americans from privileged backgrounds. He played with such conviction that Toby Friedlander, a pretty young violinist of no small talent herself, rushed backstage and said, as teenagers are wont to do “I want to marry you!” He was naturally a bit overwhelmed as he hadn’t quite discovered girls at that early age. Toby’s instinct proved utterly accurate, nonetheless. They eventually married and remain extremely happy together after nearly forty years and five children. 

Toby is in many ways the ostensible “star” of this film because she is a dynamic personality, another of those people whose natural forthrightness comes over so well on film that one wonders what career she might have had if she had chosen the violin as vocation instead. Perhaps Perlman would not be quite the success he is without her unwavering support. Family means so much to him that he limits his tours. For many performers, a single minded pursuit of art for art’s sake is a necessary part of life, but Perlman has other values, too, which transfer in their own way into his playing and teaching. There’s plenty of pure music in this DVD, including complete recordings of the Bach Partitas BWV 1006 and BWV 1004, shot in the 1970s at a BBC recital in what is now LSO St. Luke’s. in London. There are many other vignettes, including a performance in Berlin of a Scott Joplin rag, no less. But this is much more than just filmed music, it’s about why and how Perlman has become the musician and personality that he is.

Perlman was born in Tel Aviv in 1945. The war had just ended. At three he heard the violin being played on the radio. He told his parents that he wanted to play the violin. All children say such things, but with him it was deeply instinctive. He very nearly didn’t achieve his dreams, for at the age of four he was struck down by polio. In 1949, polio killed. Disability wasn’t appreciated in the way it is today. Perlman says it was just as well he wasn’t too obvious a child prodigy as being a prodigy wasn’t “normal” and he was already abnormal because he couldn’t walk without crutches. Nonetheless, he was spotted by television and went on the Ed Sullivan show at the age of nine. That was luck indeed. The Ed Sullivan Show was watched devotedly all across America. Before the Beatles appeared on it, they were unknown outside the UK. Overnight, they became a worldwide phenomenon. Nonetheless, he had to work hard to consolidate his success. He and his mother moved to New York, where he enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music, then uptown on 102nd Street. He lived with his mother in cramped lodgings. Perhaps that’s where he learned the value of family and nurturing. It certainly shows in the way he went on to become a good teacher himself. The film shows him putting students at ease so they can concentrate on their playing, rather than being distracted by anxiety and other pressures. He tells one student about a violinist who had trouble with his staccato. “I’ll show you” said the Grand Master Eugene Ysaÿe, a gigantic man with a booming voice. “Put the violin under your chin, now GO!” And, as Perlman says, the terrified player never forgot.

Perlman is self-effacing, but his warmth and innate decency mark him out. If anything, his modesty restrains the film, for much could be made of his stellar career, his campaigns for the disabled, his numerous awards, his connections with royalty and the White House and so on. But you won’t find them in this film. Instead, we see him as a person first, then as a consummate artist. He has remained true to himself as to his music. That is the achievement of this lovely, intimate film, because it reveals how an ordinary human being can achieve great things through integrity and faith … and talent and hard work. As Perlman says, as a child he often had to play late in the evening, after dinner parties when people weren’t actually listening. It taught him to find ways of getting attention, but to his credit, he learned to do so on his own terms.

Anne Ozorio


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