Serenade for Strings, Op.20
Violin Concerto No.5 in A, K219 (Turkish)
Symphony No.8 in G, Op.88

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Pinchas Zukerman (violin)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 15 March, 2006
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Although conducting is now a substantial part of his musical activity, Pinchas Zukerman’s mastery of the violin is undimmed. He gave a measured and refined account of the Mozart that harked back to a generation of violinists that gave this music time and rich expression, and with a few touches that Heifetz and Milstein would have approved of, not least the rather anachronistic (and unidentified) cadenzas. This is not to suggest that Zukerman smothered Mozart; anything but, for there were many fine lines and intimacies, and the uncluttered sound he produced was easeful. His bowing and trilling were immaculate, although the top register was prone to susceptible intonation and tone.

In essence this was a reading of sweet eloquence and classical elegance, the central Adagio being truly broad and expressive; a little more ‘relationship’ between Zukerman and principal oboist John Anderson in the most searching passage of the movement (roughly halfway through) would have intensified it all the more, but this amiable account, with a sprung accompaniment from the RPO (the horn players as smooth as silk in what can be dangerously exposed writing) was seasoned and without diversion. When Zukerman returned to the finale’s main idea for its last statement, he was a little slower and seemed to view it a fond reminiscence – rather poignant.

As a conductor, Zukerman is a practical musician to observe (his pragmatic actions enlivened by some foot-stamping and heel-clicking!) and rather more than that to the ear. Elgar’s Serenade – Zukerman is a noted exponent of the Violin Concerto – was flowing and affable and played with finesse, warmth and sensitivity, violas sitting on the outside right (at the expense of more pertinent antiphonal violins) with six double basses adding a generous foundation to the RPO’s mellow strings. There was no doubting the depth of feeling in the Larghetto, which was achieved through subtle means and letting the music speak for itself innately.

The Dvořák was less successful. Zukerman’s spacious tempo for the opening bars suggested he had fallen into the trap of seeing them as a ‘slow introduction’; in fact, tempo relationships were well judged (if not the too deliberate tempos themselves), which meant the first movement was sapped of Slavonic fire if full of beguiling detail, not least from the characterful RPO woodwinds, although crisper timpani and less-bright trumpets would have been welcome. The middle movements fared better, the Adagio rapt and punctilious, the Allegretto grazioso exactly as marked and delightfully turned; a shame though that, in the slow movement, when Zukerman took the strings down to a magical ppp, all that could really be heard was the air-conditioning! Cannot Cadogan Hall do something about this increasingly irritating intrusion?

In the finale, Zukerman, as in the first movement, went for clarity at the expense of thrust and what should be an exhilarating coda was dogged and contained. Nevertheless, there was much to admire in both Zukerman’s attention to detail and obvious affection for the music – even if the end result seemed more like music from a composer visiting Prague and its surrounds and writing ‘Four Bohemian Impressions’ rather than the outpouring of the passionately Nationalistic Dvořák.

It was a smooth, non-interventionist performance that came and went. Rather more conspicuous was the rapport that the RPO and Zukerman seemed to have established – this was his RPO debut – and which suggests that future dates shouldn’t be difficult to arrange.

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