Pinchas Zukerman Summer Music Festival at Cadogan Hall – 2: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Beethoven Prometheus, Brahms’s Double Concerto with Amanda Forsyth, Enigma Variations
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.