Friday, 27 June 2014

RPO/Zukerman - Bach, Schoenberg, Mozart, and Mendelssohn, 27 June 2014

Cadogan Hall

Bach – Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041
Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht, op.4
Mozart – Exsultate, jubilate, KV 165/158a
Mendelssohn – Symphony no.4 in A major, op.90, ‘Italian’

Arianna Zukerman (soprano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Pinchas Zukerman (violin, conductor) 

Pinchas Zukerman is joining the RPO for a ‘Summer Music Festival’ at Cadogan Hall, involving chamber as well as orchestral music, the former with musicians from the Royal College of Music. This was the opening concert, in which we were treated to Zukerman as violinist as well as conductor. There was a great deal to enjoy, and we were treated to a previously unadvertised bonus, a performance of Exsultate, jubilate, with Zukerman’s daughter, Arianna.

Bach came first: the rarest of rare treats in the insanity of modern symphonic programming. Would that one could believe this to be a harbinger; alas, it seems more likely to be a late, if not quite last, hurrah from a generation of musicians who understood and experienced the necessity of performing a repertoire spanning as many centuries as possible. Zukerman’s recordings of the Bach violin concertos with Daniel Barenboim and the English Chamber Orchestra remain a choice recommendation, as do those of David Oistrakh with the RPO. Here, in a sense, then, we gained the best of both worlds, and this was for the most part a delightfully assured, musical performance, which sought to make no especial ‘points’ and was all the better for it. The tempo taken for the first movement had a sense of ‘rightness’ to it, setting up a performance whose variegated articulation was not the least of its virtues. Zukerman’s intonation was perfect throughout. (It is surprising how many violinists’ intonation is not.) Varied flourishes of vibrato were rightly the icing on the cake. And throughout, crucially, the continuo line (Clare Williams on harpsichord, Tim Gill leading the cellos) provided the foundation upon which Bach’s miraculous score was re-created. The slow movement was a little more problematical: taken at a very brisk pace and, more to the point, at times disconcertingly brusque. Matters improved as time went on, but tutti passages retained more than a little of that character. Zukerman could occasionally be a little fierce too, though there were some truly exquisite moments: diminuendi, in particular, and some especially rich tone in the lower registers of the instrument. Some might have found the finale a little on the sturdy side, but Zukerman’s tempo permitted musical values to eclipse the merely or mostly flash. Again, that perfectly centred tone of his was something truly to savour – and again, the RPO played with unflashy excellence. 

A good number more strings joined the orchestra for Verklärte Nacht. This proved to be quite an unusual performance. In many, though not quite all, it paid off, but Zukerman certainly proved himself no slave to received tradition. The veiled opening, dark, even ominuous, seemed all the more so for being taken at an unusually slow tempo. It actually made the music sound closer to Mahler, recalling the first movement of the Second Symphony and even looking forward to the Sixth, despite the different keys involved. The opening, at least, was quite different in its lack of Brahmsian flexibility, though that would come later, Zukerman showing himself willing both to linger and to press on. Indeed, different sections of the work exhibited clearly differentiated character, the programme coming across more strongly than often. Despite one passage in which conductor and orchestra seemed to lose their way – I am not quite sure what happened – climaxes and turning-points were handled with musical and dramatic understanding. Graver passages seemed especially to benefit from Zukerman’s approach; some others might have benefited from more in the way of late Romantic abandon, sounding a little studied by comparison with other performances. I was not entirely convinced by the considerable slowing towards the end, suggesting almost an formal arch rather than a journey toward transfiguration, but the final bars themselves somewhat redressed the balance.

Arianna Zukerman showed herself a winningly forthright soloist: not flawless, but with a nicely operatic spirit. In the first movement of Mozart’s motet, the lower range showed a degree of strain, and the cadenza’s intonation was unfortunate. But her phrasing was musical, and was clearly conceived of in tandem with Zukerman’s exquisite direction of the orchestra, woodwind in particular. Even when, once again, as in the third movement, the soloist’s intonation wandered, the RPO sounded gorgeous. The final ‘Alleluia’ was taken with evident relish; it was difficult not to smile, in Haydnesque fashion, at the prospect of the Divinity.

Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony received a lovely performance with which to finish. The first movement opened with real attack, a true sense of life. Bright and bushy-tailed, Mendelssohn’s score benefited once again from splendidly variegated playing. The vivace in Allegro vivace was properly heeded. There was a delightful, subtle slowing for the advent of the second group, but the exposition repeat was not taken and was missed (at least by me!) The development section was admirably clear with an excellent sense of direction, the recapitulation offering a real sense of arrival – and also of difference, bubbling woodwind nicely to the fore. What one might call the ‘light inexorability’ of tread to the second movement was perfectly captured. It was interesting to note that often Zukerman felt no need to conduct at all, suggestive of well-directed rehearsal. The minuet received a loving, old world performance. Too relaxed? Perhaps just a little, at times, though certainly not by much. Its trio continued in similar vein, boasting especially fine Harmoniemusik, which inevitably had one think of Mozart’s serenades. Any slight doubts had evaporated by the return of the minuet. The finale wanted nothing in vigour, urgency, or, where required, lightness of touch. A fine sense of chiaroscuro ensured that it was not unrelenting, indeed that it was blessed by musical ‘character’.


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