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Press Reviews
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Zukerman and the RPO perform Mozart's miraculous final three symphonies
Bachtrack
6 July 2014
It is maybe ironic that Mozart's final three symphonies (nos. 39, 40 and 41), grand works that epitomise the heights of the Classical era, have been intellectually romanticised in the centuries following his death. It is indeed of one music's marvels that Mozart managed to complete these three extensive works in the summer of 1788, however there has been a prolonged musicological search for an extramusical meaning to these symphonies, with some claiming they might encapsulate Mozart's worldview, a plea for humanitarianism.

It seems unlikely that, for the most part, a contemporary audience would understand the works in this way, but I believe that there is still a feeling that these works must be revered and treasured as Mozart's final symphonic testament. However, with this acknowledgment of importance has come an inevitable familiarity, and I feel programming all three works in the same concert is only really justifiable if you have something original and exciting to say. Unfortunately, these were perfectly satisfying yet very routine interpretations.

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Pinchas Zukerman Summer Music Festival at Cadogan Hall – 3: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Mozart’s final three Symphonies, 39-41
Classical Source
2 July 2014
There was perhaps a routine look about this programme. To have the last three Mozart symphonies one after another seemed a pretty unimaginative piece of planning. In the event it was an enthralling and most unusual experience. A modest-sized RPO assembled on Cadogan Hall’s stage, and as we awaited the arrival of Pinchas Zukerman thoughts turned to what kind of performances we could expect.

The answer came soon enough in the introduction to the E flat Symphony. Here was a grand, majestic, emphatic statement in a very deliberate tempo, from which the Allegro part of the first movement emerged sweetly and elegantly phrased. The reduced string section sounded warm and seductive, the woodwinds blossomed beautifully and it was like a nostalgic trip back to the glory days of the RPO under its founder and great Mozartean Sir Thomas Beecham. Beecham wouldn’t have observed first-movement repeats, which we heard here in all three Symphonies.

Tempos throughout were generally on the moderate side, though not as measured as those of Beecham or his Austro-German contemporaries in slow movements, the music allowed plenty of easy expression yet it also flowed naturally. An exception was the Andante cantabile of the ‘Jupiter’, for which Zukerman adopted a daringly sedate tempo. But it came off well, thanks to the conductor’s skill in maintaining a forward pulse in such unhurried circumstances, and the touching way in which he brought out the meaningful nature of the music. Here, though, an exposition repeat would have spoilt the mood of this particular kind music-making, and made the movement seem contrived and overlong.

Zukerman’s conducting was firm enough when there was a need for precise ensemble, but in general he gave his players plenty of room for self-expression. In this environment they flourished, especially during woodwind-dominated passages. At one or two points the conductor simply stopped beating and became an approving observer; elsewhere his baton movements described a long arc as he brought out felicitous points of detail. Overall this was elevated music making, an evening that was very special.
Pinchas Zukerman Summer Music Festival at Cadogan Hall – 2: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Beethoven Prometheus, Brahms’s Double Concerto with Amanda Forsyth, Enigma Variations
Classical Source
29 June 2014
Those fortunate enough to have attended the opening concert in the Pinchas Zukerman Summer Music Festival on June 26 will have hastened to acquire a ticket for the second, a matinee, at which they would likewise have not been disappointed, for it reinforced the considerable impression made previously.

The programme, on paper, might have seemed little more than run-of-the-mill, but Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture is not so frequently encountered as to be a familiar concert item. I doubt very much if any orchestra and conductor anywhere in the world could have given an account of this unique masterpiece as comprehensively convincing as it was here.

In that regard, I am reminded of a letter sent by Carl Nielsen after conducting a performance of his Clarinet Concerto: “The orchestra played absolutely brilliantly under my baton, and why? Because they wanted to – the most gifted conductor is in one way helpless if the orchestral musicians don’t themselves and of their own volition want to follow him, and if they will, then the whole thing is like a miracle.”

So it was on this occasion: the RPO clearly respond to this greatly gifted musician, and far from being a routine account of an overture which probably doesn’t usually get much rehearsal time, this was a deeply impressive performance, despite the rather odd programme-note describing it as “no more than a bubbly curtain-raiser.” Not in this account.

Zukerman returned, now with his violin, and his wife Amanda Forsyth for the last of Brahms’s four concertos, in which he was both co-soloist and director. There is no doubt that Zukerman knows every note in this genuinely symphonic score, but in playing one of the solo parts the impression remained that, momentarily, it would perhaps have been better to have had a separate conductor. Not that the RPO was in any respect seriously out-of-sync, for Nielsen’s claim remained true in this work also, but in orchestral music of this complexity, such occasional fragmentary lapses in unanimity, most particularly in the Andante, could have been more readily avoided had a baton been in sight from a third party.

However, the nature of that relatively brief slow movement was finely conveyed, and almost all of the first one and particularly the finale were truly excellent. Forsyth was a wholly admirable partner throughout, setting the toe-tapping finale off with just the right tempo, lightness of touch, rich tone and elegant phrasing.

It was enthralling to witness Zukerman’s account of Enigma Variations, a work this orchestra has known well since Beecham’s days (is there not something a little awry in the closing bars of the RPO’s timpani part in ‘HDS-P’?); for a musician who has recorded Elgar’s Violin Concerto twice (first with Barenboim, then with Slatkin), Zukerman was not unaware of the nature of this music, and his tempos and pacing of the work were admirable: indeed, I have not heard the thread which leads into ‘Nimrod’ played with such concentration, hushed expectation and genuine musicianship, and his control of dynamics in this most famous of the variations was deeply impressive and not a little moving. Perhaps the pause before ‘Variation X’ was a little longer than necessary, but the atmosphere he generated in ‘***’ was enormously impressive and compelling, and his building and control of the succeeding finale was very fine.

All in all, this was something to remember – as indeed was the entire concert. The RPO has struck musical gold with this partnership.
Pinchas Zukerman Summer Music Festival at Cadogan Hall – 1: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Bach, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, Mozart with Arianna Zukerman, Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony
Classical Source
26 June 2014
Masterclasses, chamber-music recitals and three concerts with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (including Enigma Variations and Mozart 39-41) make up the Pinchas Zukerman Summer Music Festival (until July Second). It opened with him as violinist in J. S. Bach, primus inter pares with a handful of accompanying strings and a harpsichord, the first movement moderately paced, articulate if a little bit of a trudge, then opening out expressively in the Andante and concluding with a bouncy and zesty finale, Zukerman always tonally alluring and unapologetically using the whole length of the bow.

In Schoenberg’s early (1899) string sextet, Transfigured Night (inspired by Richard Dehmel’s poem in which a woman confesses to her lover that she is pregnant by another man), as enlarged by the composer for string orchestra in 1943 (revising a 1917 version), the RPO might have fielded a few more players – this is music that responds so well to Karajan-esque gloss and weight, but the goodly number of musicians assembled responded wonderfully to Zukerman’s lucid direction. Indeed it was a dream of a performance that immediately suggesting the dark of night and also an urgent expectancy. Zukerman’s flexible approach sustained the piece over 32 minutes (a little longer than usual but never sounding it), conjuring a vivid narrative, exquisite solo and reduced-number contributions, a generous open-heartedness, light and shade, and glowing romanticism (Cadogan Hall responding sympathetically) – all without harming the music’s internal logic and knotty contrapuntalism while leading to a dawn-breaking resolution. This was an impressive coming-together of musical minds.

After the interval, Zukerman’s daughter Arianna arrived for some time-taken and warmly-sounded (with organ included) Mozart. Maybe she was initially a little insecure and somewhat inconsistent in tone across the music’s range, but she was certainly very engaging in a story-telling way and once fully poised she sang with inviting openness, grace and a smile, the middle-movement Andante delightfully accompanied (if invaded for quite a while by a woman noisily opening a sweet-wrapper) and then with perky oboes to the fore the final ‘Alleluia’ was shapely and sparkling.

Last of all, the ‘Italian’ Symphony. Apart from the regrettable omission of the first-movement exposition repeat (and not just because we lose the numerous lead-back bars that Mendelssohn so carefully crafted), it received a near-ideal outing, crisply played from the very first bar, the opening movement appealing in its easygoing gait, the ear charmed by beguiling woodwind detail and by the obvious affection of the performers. The nocturnal tread of the second movement was lightly expressed if poetically phrased, then straight from sombre moonshine to convivial sunshine, a gentle dance elegantly turned, and then straight into the spirited finale, description and expression high on Zukerman’s agenda, the music benefitting from such consideration. The RPO and its Principal Guest Conductor made a good team.
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Dutoit – España, Images pour orchestra, La valse – Stephen Hough plays Saint-Saens’ 'Egyptian' Piano Concerto
Classical Source
21 May 2014
This well planned, well executed, all-together-excellent concert was something of a travelogue – Spain, Egypt, England, Spain (again), France and Vienna. Good on the RPO for restoring Chabrier’s España (1883), one of those orchestral gems currently lost to programmes that eschew short pieces and overtures (which is too many of them!). Charles Dutoit led an agile and festive sombrero-wearing outing, ideally paced and well balanced, reminding that this composer was a master of his craft.

So too Saint-Saëns of his, as demonstrated in the Fifth (and last) of his Piano Concertos, its Egyptian nickname an afterthought, although it was composed there, the composer being an inveterate traveller. The work opens with a radiant tune, offering great appeal, something sustained throughout the three movements’ exoticism and suggestion, music of glitter, insouciance and drive. Stephen Hough plays Saint-Saëns with disarming virtuosity and affection, his account here of superb technique and inviting musicianship, shapely and seductive, athletic and vivid, and as dedicated as you could wish for, enjoying the local colour, the suggestions of moonlit silhouettes, the music’s quick-change character, the composer’s gift for melody and the sprinting finale, of fireworks and irrepressible joie de vivre. In all this, Dutoit and the RPO were smart and characterful accompanists. Sometimes Saint-Saëns gets a bad press despite his stellar accomplishments, both in music and outside of it. On this occasion the ‘Egyptian’ was illuminated by Hough and friends and made eminently persuasive. As an encore, Hough offered the perfect starlit wind-down, his own arrangement of a song by Jules Massenet, ‘Crépuscule’, delightfully dulcet and to be found on the pianist’s French collection on Hyperion.

As for Debussy’s set of orchestral Images (there are also two collections for piano), Dutoit and a very responsive RPO worked wonders on these miraculously inventive, evocative and fastidiously scored pieces. ‘Gigues’ had a foot-tapping lilt and was scrupulously detailed, Dutoit nicely flexible in his approach. Then the dry heat of Spain was vividly brought out, contrasted with some slinky twists and turns that took us to Spanish suburbia before a sultry and sensitive realisation of night-time’s breezes and fragrances. Then the sky brightened again to return us to the festivities that Chabrier had already previewed. Arguably the greatest music here is found in the French leg, ‘Rondes de printemps’, its subtle complexities deftly revealed in spellbinding fashion, all that harmonic detail forming a fleeting yet tangible whole. At the close, it was telling that Dutoit bowed first to his orchestra; and how good to hear these five movements (‘Ibéria’ is tripartite in design) without interruption, whether mechanical or human.

Finally, La valse, Ravel’s post-World War One creation (from 1920) that initially fashions the splendidly bejewelled world of nineteenth-century Vienna before crushing it. It’s easy to play it as an empty showpiece, something that Dutoit avoided. Rather there was always an uneasy undertow, the waltz rhythms already shaky, if in full swing, before cataclysm (Dutoit encouraging rasping disruption), a freefall into annihilation, and quite disturbing: surely what Ravel intended. Nothing can follow it. This was a top evening from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and its Artistic Director and Principal Conductor; long may Dutoit remain so.
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