United Kingdom Beethoven, Elgar. Pinchas Zukerman (violin), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph Koenig (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London. 14.4.2015 (LB)
Beethoven – ‘Coriolan’ Overture, Op.62
Symphony No.6 in F Major ‘Pastoral’, Op.68
Elgar – Violin Concerto in B Minor, Op.61
The Royal Festival Hall was packed last night, and the atmosphere charged with expectation. One got the sense that everyone, including many distinguished professional musicians, was there to hear the legendary Pinchas Zukerman, who is still at the height of his powers after decades at the very top of the music profession, not just with his violin, viola and bow, but increasingly with a baton.
One would have expected a conductor of some stature to be entrusted with the task of accompanying Pinchas Zukerman, but the relatively youthful Christoph Koenig appeared to relish the opportunity, and not only that, he was also entrusted with the first half of the concert, which comprised two very well known pieces of Beethoven.
Greater unanimity of attack would have contributed to more dramatic power in the ‘Coriolan’ Overture, and the moments of repose could also have been more tender. The orchestra was seated in an unusual configuration, with the violas on the outside of the platform, where the cellos would usually be, and I began to wonder whether separating the cellos and double basses in this manner diminished the power and precision of the orchestra’s foundation.
The ‘Pastoral’ Symphony fared better, and after a genial and evocative start to the first movement the orchestra resolutely took matters into its own hands, performing with palpable determination.
Christoph Koenig’s choices of tempi were not always appropriate, most noticeably in an impatient Scherzo that sapped the vigour from the ensuing storm, in which the roar of the wind and claps of thunder struggled to manifest themselves with any real conviction.
The orchestra was nonetheless in great shape, and such superb playing was a sobering reminder of the collective skill and distinguished history that forms the basis of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s unique musical personality.
The second half was devoted to Elgar’s extravagant Violin Concerto and the orchestra that took to the stage after the interval had a slightly reduced string choir.
It is a technically and emotionally demanding work, and has enjoyed an illustrious, if chequered history since its premiere in 1910 with its original dedicatee, Fritz Kreisler. Legendary violinists such as Yehudi Menuhin and Albert Sammons were amongst its subsequent champions, and both performed and recorded it under Elgar’s direction.
Zukerman’s own relationship with the work has been an enduring one too, and in addition to a significant clutch of recordings over an extended period of time, his last live UK performance of the concerto was, as far as I am aware, in the BBC Proms 2004.
The orchestra’s opening tutti was strikingly idiomatic and alluring, and from the very first phrase that Pinchas Zukerman played it was clear that we were in for something special. His spellbinding performance brought a lifetime of experience and wisdom to bear on this remarkable concerto. Such exalted technical and musical mastery represents some of the noblest of human accomplishments.
The orchestra was outstanding throughout the concerto too, inspired no doubt by the artistry of Zukerman, who has been their principal guest conductor since 2009.
As we left the auditorium, a member of the audience engaged me in conversation, commenting enthusiastically on Zukerman’s performance, and as for Elgar’s concerto, she reckoned it was “…not at all bad for an Englishman…”
Performances of this calibre are rare and I was encouraged to see that the film and documentary maker Christopher Nupen was present, and to know that this evening’s performance will have been recorded for posterity.