Thursday, January 16, 2014

Royal Philharmonic and Zukerman take the long view of the Austro-German mainstream

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the London ensemble founded by the legendary Thomas Beecham, played the Palladium Wednesday night. Under the guidance of principal guest conductor Pinchas Zukerman, the concert traced the traditional concert boundaries of Austro-German music — from J.S. Bach to Arnold Schoenberg  (before Schoenberg took that music over the tonality border into a new language).

"Verklaerte Nacht" (Transfigured Night) exists in both sextet and string-orchestra versions. The sacrifice of intimacy when the latter version is performed is slight.  There's no doubt that the score's luxuriant half-hour length and the richness of its interior voices permit a large ensemble to make more of an effect. Of the three works on the program, this was the one that presented Zukerman as a conductor only, and his rapport with players and score was evident.

The 1899 piece is program music with an unusual descriptive basis, partly because of the poem that inspired it: The night of the title becomes transfigured when the woman's confession of infidelity turns into the couple's vow to raise the child fathered by another man as their own.

The RPO's performance was illuminating. The introductory section progressed in a measured and sober way, with just enough tension to suggest the difficult conversation the lovers are embarking upon. The strings sounded rich and alert to every textural and harmonic shift, from top to bottom. Particularly notable were the bold, sometimes slashing viola lines and several conspicuous viola solos played by principal Fiona Winning.

The "flautando" passage (an ethereal effect named for its flute-like sound) near the end was mesmerizing, and the hymnlike conclusion held the audience spellbound. Zukerman made the pauses and tension shifts emotionally compelling, and his players consistently adhered to a high level technically.

The program opened with Bach's A Minor violin concerto, in which the most notable feature was the characteristic Zukerman tone, sweet yet virile, firmly centered but not too forceful, and characterized by smooth, seductive phrasing. The first movement came off a little glib, but the nobility imparted to the slow movement raised the emotional profile of the performance considerably. The finale was perky and well-coordinated throughout.

For Brahms' Concerto in A minor for violin, cello and orchestra — familiarly known as the Brahms double -- Zukerman was joined by his wife,  Amanda Forsyth, in the other solo role. She is a capable cellist, sensitive as to dynamics and rhythm to a degree that seemed almost in her husband's class, but lacking his pearly sound and ingratiating flair. This is a difficult work to bring off with a conductor playing one of the solo parts. As a result, there were momentary coordination problems in the last movement.

Called back for an encore, Zukerman and Forsyth offered part of the finale of Kodaly's Duo, which featured a folklike melody for the violin — and thus one more opportunity for the appreciative audience to take away in its memory a little bit more of Zukerman's special gifts.