United Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Beethoven: Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Pinchas Zukerman (violinist and conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 1.4.2016. (CR)
Tchaikovsky: Mélodie – Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Op. 42; Sérénade mélancholique – Op. 26
Beethoven: Romance No. 1 in G major, Op. 40; Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21
The Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra (as it has recently been renamed, from the Oxford Philomusica) continued its collaboration with some of the world’s most prominent violinists by allowing Pinchas Zukerman to take over the reins as both soloist and conductor. A relatively short programme featuring concertante works by Tchaikovsky and Beethoven (but not their more virtuosic concertos) was made all the briefer by Zukerman’s tendency to push his performances along with some insistence and briskness: it began at 7.30pm, but was finished before nine o’clock, with an interval!
Tchaikovsky’s well-known Mélodie opened with an airy charm, but Zukerman then entered on the violin with rich, expressive playing, perhaps even making his sound too thick and allowing the music little room to breathe. By contrast he established a brooding atmosphere at the outset of the Sérénade mélancholique, and his urgent playing on the violin suited the mood of that piece better. But again, his tendency to drive the music hard in Beethoven’s Romance No. 1 (excepting a few more delicate episodes) contradicted the easeful flow of the music. Reading from a score in each piece and facing the audience from his music stand, he was turned away from the orchestra whilst playing, and only turned round to the orchestra to give an explicit lead in tempo when free, so it was as though he was coercing them by his forceful performance on the violin as his means of direction, rather than engaging with them on more equal terms. It was certainly a pleasure to hear the muscular quality of sound he can draw from his instrument, but other repertoire would have been more appropriate for that on this occasion.
Taking up the baton for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, Zukerman led a hefty but brisk interpretation of this work which certainly emphasised the ways in which it foreshadows the greater symphonic dramas to come from that composer, rather than looking back to its Haydnesque models with the wit and levity that implies. Occasionally the latter shone through, such as in the repeat of the second movement’s exposition, and in the mercurial dash of the Scherzo, which remained light on its feet. But there was very little concession to period performance practice in this interpretation except for a general lack of rubato, making for an otherwise impulsive and vigorous account.
The sense of expectation which accrued in the slow introduction was followed through with a robust first movement, to the extent that the second subject should have been more relaxed to enable a sharper contrast to emerge. But curiously no such mystery was created in Beethoven gradual build-up of a rising scale at the outset of the finale, though the Oxford Philharmonic carried enough energy throughout this movement to ensure that it came off as a fitting and thrilling climax to the symphony. The Andante second movement was certainly taken con moto as per Beethoven’s marking, with no danger of the music dragging but rather the sense of being carried along upon a tidal sweep, looking ahead to the broader symphonic currents of such later works as the second movement of the Fourth Symphony.
So, there were some exhilarating performances in this concert, but this was an effect achieved more in the round rather than in the details. Zukerman calmed the temper of the occasion with a dainty rendition of Brahms’s Lullaby on the solo violin, to which he invited the audience to sing along.