This past Wednesday Gramophone Magazine honored Itzhak Perlman with the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Talk of a ‘Lifetime Achievement’ has a finality about it, but the vital spark that is Itzhak Perlman shows no sign of dimming. As I write, he is celebrating his 75th birthday, yet in a recent interview he cheerfully told the Chicago Tribune: ‘I’m not thinking 75. When I pick up the violin, and I start playing, I say to myself: “Oh, 75 is pretty good. Things are still working!”’
He has been honoured by three American presidents – even playing ‘live’ at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration (the performance was actually pre-recorded due to the cold weather) – and an Israeli prime minister. His recordings have garnered innumerable awards. His videos have won four Emmys. He has had three of the costliest fiddles at his disposal, by Stradivari, Guarneri del Gesù and Bergonzi.
Yet over and above this worldly success, he ranks among the great humanists of the string-playing sphere, alongside such names as Busch, Casals, Oistrakh Snr and Szigeti. He has too ready a sense of humour to be a saint or a high priest: still, he has borne bodily affliction with grace and dignity and has been both a role model and a spokesman for disabled people.
We British encountered Perlman in the late 1960s as one of a golden generation with Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pré, Daniel Barenboim, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Zubin Mehta. Amid all the banter preserved on Christopher Nupen’s films, a quiet authority about his playing marked him out even in that company.