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Violinist Pinchas Zukerman with the Royal Philharmonic

Conductor and violin soloist Pinchas Zukerman. (Paul Labelle)

Pinchas Zukerman travels light. Touring with Britain’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the violinist eschewed the services of a conductor in the Bach Concerto in A minor, a fairly common practice, as well as in the towering Brahms Double Concerto, which is unheard-of. The Bach is essentially a piece of chamber music, for a small string orchestra, with the soloist often playing in unison with the other violinists. The Brahms, on the other hand, is a massive, complex work for full symphonic forces plus two soloists; in short, a recipe for disaster without a full-time conductor. But, remarkably, it came off. Zukerman’s partner was his wife, cellist Amanda Forsyth, and their playing was of course well-integrated. But kudos to the orchestra members who had to infer many details while their conductor was busy playing.

Zukerman remains a marvel of understated virtuosity, even if his sound does not glow quite as brightly as in years past. The subtleties of his bow-arm yield musical lines that tease the ear and reveal the churning intellect behind his rather aloof façade. Forsyth is a fine cellist in her own right, handling technical difficulties with aplomb. She ignored the composer’s explicit instructions to play the opening cadenza “always in tempo,” but otherwise her contribution was faultless.

The RPO strings took the spotlight for Schoenberg’s hyper-romantic “Verklärte Nacht.” Zukerman is an experienced conductor, but he has never elicited orchestral performances that matched the expressivity of his own playing. Here again, efficiency took precedence over narrative or fantasy.While one could appreciate the clarity of line that Zukerman achieved, there was little sense of the ecstasy and anguish in the piece.

The RPO is an orchestra with a distinguished history, and it would have been nice to have heard it in a major symphonic work with a full-time conductor on the podium.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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