Weighty Beethoven from Zukerman and the Royal Philharmonic

Beethoven: Pinchas Zukerman (violin and conductor), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, RFH, London, 11.5.11 (GDn)

Beethoven: Egmont Overture
Beethoven: Violin Concerto
Beethoven: Symphony No.5

In all my years of concert going in London, this was the first time I had heard the RPO live. Bizarrely, I hadn’t heard Beethoven 5 live either, although of course, I have enjoyed a long (and occasionally passionate) relationship with both the orchestra and the symphony on record.

RPO concerts, at least on the strength of this one experience, aren’t like concerts by other London orchestras. The audience is older but more enthusiastic. Of course, with an all-Beethoven programme, what is there not to like? They seemed to be equally passionate about Pinchas Zukerman, and both his conducting and his playing occasioned almost apoplectic applause.

So much for the audience, what was the performance like? To be honest, I didn’t think much of it. Beethoven sits at the fault line of the standard repertoire; every earlier composer has been more or less appropriated by the period performance movement, while later composers are still firmly in the symphony orchestra repertoire. But both make equal claims to Beethoven. Mutual influence can make that advantageous for both parties, with the period instrument ensembles moving towards more dramatic performances and the symphony orchestras refining what they do with Beethoven’s scores.

Not the RPO though, they are still performing Beethoven as if it were Mahler, with a huge string section, and everything played out in grand sweeping gestures. There are one or two advantages to this approach, Beethoven’s orchestrations really benefit from the contributions of a double bass section of twelve players. But the playing of the whole orchestra lacked precision, and Beethoven’s nimble rhythms were often bogged down just by the sheer weight of the ensemble.

The opening of Egmont was an indicator of what was ahead. The sinister chords of the opening passage were presented with all the corners rounded off. The rest of the overture was certainly weighty, but hardly incisive. The orchestra played with passion but lacked precision, not in their tuning, that was generally OK, but in their ensemble was approximate at best.

After the overture, the podium was quickly moved from the stage, and Zukerman returned with his violin to both play and conduct the Beethoven concerto. The concert was clearly all about Zukerman, his bio in the programme ran to three pages, about six times as much as most soloists or conductors usually get. While he is a relative newcomer to conducting, it is the violin he is best known for. Again, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the results. Many concertos can be played fine with the soloist directing the ensemble, and I’m sure there is precedent with this one, but much is lost in the process. The orchestra really needs somebody to shape the phrases, especially in the slow movement, and without one they are reduced to mere backing. Zukerman performs the piece with a gritty, strident tone, which certainly competes with the volume of the orchestra but isn’t very pretty. He delivers the phrases in an assertive and deliberate manner, his brow furrowed in concentration and his gaze fixed on the floor. True enough, Beethoven’s concerto is one of the heavier in the violin’s repertoire, but it needs some lightness and grace as well.

The finale fared better than the first two movements. Zukerman’s muscular bowing worked to the benefit of the strong downbeats of the main theme, allowing him to clearly articulate its shape. And the orchestra responded well to his playing here, balancing the weight of these refrains with some real delicacy (at last!) in the quieter interludes.

Zukerman conducted Beethoven’s Fifth from a score, which surprised me, especially as he seemed to know it well enough not to need the text. The performance was a mixed bag. To his credit, he didn’t exaggerate any of the gestures in the outside movements, keeping the tempos steady and giving just enough dynamic contrast to articulate their structure. But both the opening movement and the finale suffered from some fatal longueurs, with the energy dropping to such and extent in the quieter passages that it often proved almost impossible to revive.

The inner movements worked better. There was an endearing gentleness about the second movement, with both the conductor and orchestra apparently content to allow the variations to gradually play out, one after the other. The third movement too was presented without undue histrionics. In fact, it went too far the other way, and could have done with more drama and punch.

But despite my own reservations, the audience again went wild at the end of the symphony. There are different Beethovens for different audiences I suppose, and Pinchas Zukerman delivers the kind of Beethoven that these listeners respond to. Even so, a little more precision, clarity and interpretive focus would go a long way, and I suspect make this a more satisfying experience for everybody involved.

Gavin Dixon