Academic Festival Overture, Op.80
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98
Pinchas Zukerman (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: Violet Bergen
Reviewed: 19 October, 2010
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
In 1879 composer and conductor Bernhard Scholz bestowed upon Brahms an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Breslau, which Brahms acknowledged by sending a postcard. Scholz suggested that a new composition would be a more appropriate expression of gratitude, and he asked Brahms to write a symphony. Brahms instead composed Academic Festival Overture, which incorporates four student songs. Alan Gilbert took it at a brisk tempo. The initial dark color later became triumphant, with exciting intensity in the forte passages, although the energy level dropped during the quieter ones.
In the introduction to the Violin Concerto, the strings had a consistently warm, lush tone, with little emphasis on accents and a limited dynamic range. Thus, Pinchas Zukerman’s first entry was jolting in its divergence. His timbre was extraordinarily bright, which sounded wonderful in the treble range but at times was unpleasantly shrill. The first movement’s triple-stopped chords were crunchy and harsh to the point of sounding amateurish, but fast runs were thrilling in their precision. Zukerman’s interpretation was fresh in its complete shunning of Romanticism. He used almost no rubato, even in the cadenza (Joachim’s), and shaped the phrases by using a hugely varied dynamic range and precise articulation, all the while keeping the tempo rock-steady. It was fascinating to hear this familiar concerto played without schmaltz. Zukerman seemed unaware of the orchestra and gazed at his feet throughout much of the performance. Gilbert followed along and kept the tempo rigid for the most part, yet entries were often slightly sloppy. Liang Wang’s glorious oboe solo to open the slow movement would have sounded much lovelier had he been allowed more freedom in the timing.
The Fourth Symphony was a return to Romantic Brahms, with rich tone and rhythmic freedom. There were few surprises in this bland interpretation. The uniformly rich timbre of the violins in the first movement never changed. Precision was lacking, and some of the string entries were not completely together. The uninspired performance did not achieve a modicum of excitement even in the accelerando towards the end of the first movement. The second one lacked variety in its sections, although the initial horn solos were phrased with care and had a lovely timbre. Longer phrases were minimally shaped and lacked direction in the scherzo. The faster string passages sounded dull and etude-like. The blandness did not resolve in the passacaglia finale, although there were some beautiful moments such as Robert Langevin’s wistful flute solo. The balance was weirdly off throughout, with string-accompanying passages drowning out wind-melodic lines, then vice versa. In all, it was robotic performance that lacked spark.