Ever since the Elgar Violin Concerto was written for Fritz Kreisler in 1910 it has been perfectly clear to the few who got to know it that the concerto is a great work. Most of the people who heard Pinchas Zukerman's deeply felt and technically spectacular playing of it at the Kennedy Center last night must have been taken by surprise. The Philadelphia Orchestra program bore the notation "first performance at these concerts." And you seldom hear it anywhere.
The concerto is incredibly demanding for the violinist, yet there is not even the least hint of a virtuoso vehicle about it, unlike, say, the Tchaikovsky concerto. In length and breadth it is closer to Beethoven and Brahms. But it is without their density of invention or rhetorical ramparts. The mood is elegiac, even nostalgic. Just as in Elgar's other masterpiece, the "Enigma Variations," he seems to be capturing some intimate, tender and passing personal insights and experiences. This becomes especially clear in the reverie cadenza that breaks in near the end and brings back the themes of the beginning. Played at least as Zukerman did it, time seems almost suspended, as if in wistful hope that the same could happen to life.
It was clear from the first few measures of Zukerman's entrance, with singing lines, the rich vibrato in the lower range, the subtle dynamics, the evenness of tone as the ardent melodies leapt all over the scale, that the concerto was going to flow as it should.
Zukerman was in such grand form, in fact, that one wasn't even all that bothered by Riccardo Muti's unidiomatic conducting. He was making the Philadelphia Orchestra, of all things, sound hard and rigid. The brass often failed to blend properly and the tympani was too loud.
This music is in an utterly different style from violist/conductor Zukerman's glorious Mozart with Perlman in the Concert Hall last spring, or conductor Zukerman's freshly conceived Beethoven, Haydn and Stravinsky during his St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's summer festival concerts here. No other guest has given Washington so much fine music this year.
Muti's way was downright bewildering in Tchaikovsky's "Little Russian" Symphony. This is music of enormous grace and color, but his headstrong and unbending manner obliterated that. It was brilliant, and it was garish.