Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Zukerman – Beethoven

Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Pinchas Zukerman (violin)

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 11 May, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Pinchas ZukermanDo we really want to hear great instrumentalists conduct? The answer, in Pinchas Zukerman’s case, seemed initially to be “certainly not” given the frankly boring rendition of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. But a more perceptive Beethoven Fifth and Zukerman’s direction-from-the-instrument in the Violin Concerto redressed the balance and made one concede that, although we’d rather listen to him play the violin, his relaxed demeanour on the podium can turn a fine performance.

Of course, he’d be nowhere without an excellent ensemble to direct, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is certainly that. Its musicians played with a dark and concentrated tone and, with the exception of some queasy flute tuning in the symphony, excelled themselves throughout. There wasn’t much more they could have done for Egmont though, which, despite the full body of string sound, simply refused to move or build. Zukerman’s beat led to an uncertain opening declamation and his stately tempo produced not the faintest glimmer of drama. Those qualities of string sonority were also felt in the Fifth Symphony which, thankfully, swayed and surged. Zukerman’s direction here was unfussy, rarely exaggerating contrasts, but his influence was most readily evident in the last movement; at its brassy heights Zukerman’s arms requested a broad and finely balanced grandeur rather than a hectoring triumphalism, which he got from the outstanding trumpets and trombones. The players gave him carefully considered textures in the Andante that signalled the hint of an influence of ‘period’ style; otherwise this was big-band Beethoven.

It was Zukerman’s old-school charm in the Violin Concerto, though, that was the peak. At 62, Zukerman’s commanding playing is redolent of a long gone age. When he rose to prominence, Heifetz, David Oistrakh, Milstein and Stern were the pre-eminent violinists and something of that sound lives on in his unapologetically mid-century way with the Beethoven. Maybe it’s his wide vibrato, or his recourse to swooping shifts well out of fashion with younger players; in any case his style is as indefinably classic as the cut of a vintage suit and was a breath of fresh air in this expansive concerto. Zukerman never needed to plead or toy with the solo line; he communicated his comfortable knowledge of it and was infinitely wise in the epic stretch of the first movement. There were a few slips of intonation and a rough-and-ready romp through Kreisler’s cadenza, yet in the brief one of the finale he was effortlessly exciting, which made up for a little brusqueness at the outset of the movement. At the concert’s end, he plucked a violin from a back-desk player and began Brahms’s ‘Lullaby’, imploring the audience to hum along, which some people did, albeit reluctantly.

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