by Walter Simmons
CHAUSSON: Concert in D for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet. ltzhak Perlman, violin; Jorge Bolet, piano; Juilliard String Quartet. CBS MASTERWORKS IM-37814 (digital), produced by Steven Epstein.
With the appearance of its second digital recording, I suppose that the Chausson Concert can no longer be considered a “neglected” masterpiece. By now it has been recorded by quite a few celebrated artists, the most recent of whom was Lorin Maazel, as violin soloist on a Telarc release also featuring lsraela Margalit as pianist, with the Cleveland Orchestra Quartet. That was a good performance—up to a point—and so is this new CBS rendition—in fact, the two are not all that different from each other. True, Perlman’s violin playing is smooth and lustrous, while Maazel’s is a little shaky; and Bolet’s playing is a bit flaccid, while Margalit’s is more incisive. On the whole, the Perlman performance is pervasively mellow, while Maazel’s interpretation depends more on contrasts of mood and tempo. Yet these differences are very minor in degree. In actuality, the performances share much more in common: They are both very romantic and, at times, allow their notion of what “romantic” playing is to lead them away from the natural syntax of the music—what might be called interpretive dogma. Both performances also strive for a consistently velvety sound and a mood of genteel languor. This is particularly true of the new Perlman performance; the Maazel does have its moments of agitation and excitement. Both quartets are smoothly polished and both recordings offer clear, sumptuous sonic splendor.
I am pleased that today’s leading musicians are turning their attention to a work that I have long regarded as one of the masterpieces of 19th-century chamber music. But what is unsatisfactory about Perlman’s rendition especially is symptomatic of today’s “superstar” performers and their mass-market approach to classical music: polished virtuosity narcissistically oblivious to the music it is supposed to serve. Unlike his counterpart of yesterday, whose coarseness and vulgarity was usually blatantly obvious, today’s more sophisticated brand of virtuoso has learned to affect “tonal beauty,” to suggest “romantic emotion” with slow tempos, and to avoid the tackiness of excessive rubato. But despite the veneer of refinement, it’s still interpretation by numbers, dead musicianship, devoid of insight, embalmed to simulate the real thing. It is what a friend of mine calls “the Bjorn Borg approach to music-making”; you can hear it when Pavarotti sings, when Mehta conducts, and you can hear it when Perlman plays, to name just a few of many examples.
As I opined at some length in my review of the Telarc recording (Fanfare IV:2, pp. 92-3), Chausson’s Concert is an eloquent work of intense emotion and an important precursor of impressionism. Its considerable significance is not at all conveyed by this CBS release. (For evidence of what is missing, listen to the now-defunct Mace recording, MCS-9074, that featured John Corigliano, Sr., and Ralph Votapek.) In listening to this disc and reading the jacket, I wondered that it was chosen for recording at all. In his typically simplistic annotation, Peter Eliot Stone offers nothing to entice the prospective purchaser to consider this music—or to enhance the understanding of the listener, simply reiterating conventional clichés about Chausson that reveal little familiarity with his unique qualities or his true place in the evolution of French music. Perlman, the violinistic equivalent of “just another pretty face,” goes through the piece without losing his smile, while Bolet yawns and tries to stay awake. Is this what they mean by “world-class musicianship?