Virtuoso's visit is a tour de force


LAST Sunday, consistent with their adventurous classical music programming, the Hexagon in Reading hosted one of the great London orchestras, the Royal Philharmonic, in its 70th anniversary season — and, in his eighth season as principal guest conductor, one of the greatest violin virtuosi, Pinchas Zukerman.

Adding Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Elgar’s Enigma Variations to this already enticing combination was a virtual guarantee of a full house. The crowded foyer veritably hummed with anticipation.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Overture: Egmont Op 84, written for Goethe’s play about Count Egmont, who tried to overthrow the Duke of Alba, the King of Spain’s representative in the Netherlands in the 16th century. Egmont’s rebellion failed and he was executed.

All the tragic drama, especially the battle of wills between the two protagonists, is played out in the music and, predictably, the RPO gave it a committed, flawless performance, setting high expectations for the remainder of the programme.

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major was a revelation, both in terms of Zukerman’s sheer mastery of the music’s technical challenge, and the seemingly effortless way in which he executed it.

This was no perfunctory, classical interpretation. Instead, it verged on something much more romantic. Phrases were tossed away lightly and tempi were bent, yet the overall shape remained intact.

To add gilt to the gingerbread, Zukerman’s instrument, a 17th century Amati, produced the sweetest of tones, carrying to the farthest corners of the auditorium in even the quietest moments of the slow movement.

That Zukerman could play this highly demanding piece and its breathtaking cadenzas while also directing the orchestra was a tour de force.

His interpretative instincts continued into Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme — a showpiece for the orchestra, whose woodwind and brass sections were impeccable throughout.

The passion, especially from the string sections, was inspiring, while in the more reflective passages the cello and viola solos came across beautifully, underpinned by a fabulous team of basses.

The violas, much favoured by Elgar, repaid his generosity with a mellifluous, unified sound.

As with the Beethoven, every one of the 16 variations was carefully sculpted. And who could not be moved by Nimrod? Multiple curtain calls said it all.

Congratulations to the Hexagon for attracting such artists. In March and April, we can look forward to the European Union Chamber Orchestra (with British violinist Jennifer Pike), The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Henley Symphony Orchestra (with pianist Stephen Hough).

Thanks are also due to the North Reading Suzuki Group for their impressive performances in the interval.

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