Pinchas Zukerman & Marc Neikrug

Sonata in G minor, BWV1029
Viola Sonata, Op.147
Sonata for Piano and Violin in E flat, K481
Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor, Op.108

Pinchas Zukerman (violin & viola) & Marc Neikrug (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 1 November, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

In the UK at least, Pinchas Zukerman is hardly the familiar figure he was thirty years ago, when he could be found partnering Daniel Barenboim in the violin-and-piano repertoire, or joining (as violist) Itzhak Perlman in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante.

Zukerman has never shied away from the viola’s more circumspect attractions: at this recital he gave equal weight to both violin and viola, and through a programme which was itself an engrossing (though not chronological) traversal of over 250 years in Western music.

Bach is always a good place to start in a programme which emphasised, however unobtrusively, the evolution of musical structure – and the three viola da gamba sonatas sound at least as, if not more, effective on viola than on cello. That said, Zukerman’s reticent, almost apologetic manner robbed the opening Vivace of much of its bracing vigour, and the finale ofits robust humour. Only the Adagio, its stream of interrelated motifs coalescing to ruminative effect, had the expected authority. As with Leonidas Kavakos in his Wigmore Hall recital last January, Zukerman is right to play Bach’s string sonatas on a ‘modern’ instrument, but needs to project the virtues of that approach more decisively.

From here to Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata is to encompass something like the whole of the ‘classical’ literature, though a continuity in manner between them transcends mere consideration of time-span. Whether or not Zukerman hasplayed the piece frequently in the past, his control over the alternately fugitive and stark gestures of the opening Moderato was absolute – as was his feel for the sardonic side of the composer’s character in the Allegretto that follows. Too many players treat the Adagio, being the finale of Shostakovich’s last work, as a ‘requiem’ to be spun-out to excessive length– but, with Marc Neikrug maintaining an unbroken temporal flow, Zukerman ensured its fatalistic musings and prominent Beethoven allusions were accorded due gravitas without any loss of concentration. The feeling of the sonata as stoic epitaph to a complex and difficult career was thoughtfully reaffirmed.

After the interval, Zukerman switched to his violin for a telling-contrasted brace of sonatas – beginning with the most ingratiating of Mozart’s final trilogy. Again, it is possible to make the Allegro (hardly ‘molto’ in this instance) more characterful without loss of its underlying composure, and give greater emphasis to the Adagio’s tonal contrasts without sacrificing coherence – though it was a tribute to Zukerman’s professionalism that, after a coughing-fit brought on by a mint that went the wrong way, he took the movement up again at the first episode with renewed conviction. The variations of the Allegretto were engagingly rendered to make this finale feel more than the sum of its enticing parts.

Yet it was the performance of Brahms’s D minor sonata that most fully reminded one just how thinking a virtuoso Zukerman can be. Among the most emotionally frank of Brahms’s later works, the angular energy of the opening movement was finely gauged, while the gypsy inflections that give the Adagio its bittersweet yearning were movingly rendered. Zukerman could have broughtmore ambiguity to the whimsical intermezzo which ensues, but his commitment in the finale ensured that its expressive conflict emerged with due intensity – any eventual resolution attained, if at all, only in spite of itself.

A fine performance, with Neikrug’s concomitant insights attesting to why he has been Zukerman’s pianist of choice for three decades. As an encore, Five Easy Pieces by Elgar was given a rare outing: winsome and unambitious, yet already characteristic miniatures that recall Zukerman’s championing of the ViolinConcerto, and which brought this recital to a lively yet understated close.

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