Pinchas and Players – Wellington’s Zukerman Experience

Pinchas Zukerman (violin) / Jessica Linnebach (violin)
Jethro Marks (viola) / Ashan Pillai (viola)
Amanda Forsythe (‘cello)

KODALY – Duo for violin and ‘cello Op.7
BEETHOVEN – String Quintet in C Op.29
DVORAK – String Quintet in E-flat Op.97

Wellington Town Hall, Wednesday 12th August 2009

Known primarily as one of the world’s top virtuoso violinists, Pinchas Zukerman has also developed a reputation as a chamber musician, firstly in association with Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pre on recordings of music by Beethoven; and more lately with a group formed by the violinist in 2002, the Zukerman Chamber Players. Here in New Zealand for the first time to take part in “The Zukerman Experience”, the NZSO’s latest concert series, Pinchas Zukerman is also on tour with his group for Chamber Music New Zealand, taking with them two programmes nationwide. Wellington concertgoers heard the first of these programmes at the Town Hall on Wednesday evening.

In the programme, a quote from English critic David Denton summed up fairly what we heard from the group, with their programme of Kodaly, Beethoven and Dvorak – Denton talked about the Players’ “self-effacing musicianship never standing between the listener and the composer”, a sentiment which seemed to be echoed in the comments of people I spoke with who had also attended the concert. I would agree entirely, while at the same time wondering why on some occasions this self-effacement on the part of performers, often set up as an ideal by connoisseurs and critics, can in fact short-change the musical experience. In relative terms, the performances throughout by the Group were extremely classy; and in at least one instance, that of the Kodaly Duo, I felt thoroughly caught up with the music-making, finding the performers’ engagement with the sounds an enthralling experience. Elsewhere, I felt one step removed, as it were, as if a gloss or a sheen had been applied to the beautifully-finished product, keeping me in the bystander realms, the “spectator-line” in front of the art-work placed a little too far back, as it were.

So, what was different about the performance of the Kodaly Duo that engaged me to an extent that made the experience a stand-out one? First of all, there was a sense, right from the first note, that both Zukerman and his ‘cellist partner, Amanda Forsythe, were living the music – the interplay between them was palpable, the authoritative, “digging-in” opening giving way to a wonderful sense of the players exploring the sound-spaces and stimulating each other’s sensibilities, both using pizzicato motifs to goad the other into responses both of the utmost delicacy and beguiling richness. Then there was the sheer variation of tone-colour, gossamer figurations set by turns alongside full-blooded outpourings, the sounds at times resembling that of a string orchestra, the cellist with simple arpeggiations ravishing our senses with the glorious tones of her instrument.

The slow movement featured song-like sweetness at the outset, but with a central section whose character was almost surreal, as if a gentle dream had suddenly been hijacked by phobia-ridden angst, the tensions gradually melting-down with lovely Aeolian-harp-like strummings from the ‘cellist, and rapt responses from her duo partner. The finale began gloriously, with Zukerman and Forsythe generating an exultant, rhapsodising mood, then plunging into the dance, alternating dark, earthy Hungarian rhythms with more stratospheric flights of fancy, the episodes growing out of one another. I got the feeling that both musicians were throwing themselves into the intricacies of interaction and contrast that the music affords, with a wonderfully adrenalin-led burst of energy at the coda, leaving behind the concert-hall ethos and revelling in a richly-detailed out-of-doors spirit that left us exhilarated.
After these intense out-of-door explorations, the Beethoven Quintet seemed to inhabit another world of sensibility altogether. At first I liked the contrast set up by the more “orchestral” feel of the ensemble, but as the work progressed I began to miss in the playing that sense of involvement with the music that Zukerman and Forsythe had exhibited so tellingly during the Kodaly. Throughout the first movement I kept wanting the ensemble to “dig in” a little more to the string textures, perhaps at a slower, more “pointed” tempo. Interesting that I found the work as a whole somewhat reined in considering that the same composer at this time (1801) was working on other,  more revolutionary pieces that were challenging classical norms and structures in different genres such as the piano sonata (the Op.27 Sonatas, and the “Pastoral”).

I liked the contrasts afforded by the slow movement, the development section “breaking out” from the constraints of the opening, and the players nicely catching the humour of the “false ending”, at what seems like a concluding cadence suddenly plunging back into the turmoil, before slowly restoring a sense of calm. But contrary to the programme note’s description of the Beethoven finale as “pure drama”, I thought the ensemble brought out the music’s urbanity and elegance more than any kind of elemental connections. Detail was beautifully filled in, from the elfin ambience of the tremolando accompaniment at the opening, to the deftest of violinistic touches from Zukerman himself in the more withdrawn Andante episodes; while the Players obviously revelled in the music’s pacy minor-key sections, delivering the notes with plenty of snap and polish, and nicely contrasting the polarities of activity and circumspection throughout. Still, for me, the impression remained of a performance that never really “let go”, so that the Beethoven we were presented with remained a drawing-room composer, albeit an interesting and occasionally surprising one.
The Dvorak Quintet is justly regarded as one of the great glories of the chamber-music repertoire for string instruments – and in a sense, Zukerman and his Players performed it like that, with beautifully-modulated tones and tight rhythmic control throughout, allowing the work’s greatness as an absolute piece of music to shine through, even if there were no folk-singers intoning the tunes and clogs stamping to the rhythms. If my bias extends towards a performance ethos of this kind of music that makes earthier connections than we heard from these musicians, I’m not denying the virtuosity and beauty of tone that emanated from the Wellington Town Hall stage throughout. The musicians gave full-throated voice to the work’s lyrical opening, and expertly spun the syncopated rhythms of the ensuing allegro. Brilliant though their playing of the scherzo was, I missed the chunky “folk-fiddle” ambiences of my mind’s ear, and thought some of the music’s character had been ever-so-slightly dulled with too generalised a response. The Players came into their own with the hymn-like measures of the slow movement, lines gorgeously intertwined, and contrasting sections beautifully characterised, the ‘cello-playing from Amanda Forsythe always ear-catching, especially in the major-minor contrasts of some of the movement’s variations.

The work’s finale bottoms out a bit compared with the other three movements, its contrasting rondo-like episodes needing strong characterisation to provide sufficient contrast with the all-pervasive jig-rhythms of the principal theme. I thought the ensemble gave the music plenty of energy, but didn’t sufficiently “colour” the contrasts enough for there to be a real sense of “homecoming” at the return of the jig-like rhythm each time. But the movement’s conclusion was exhilarating, with dotted rhythms giving way to triplets and building the excitement towards the last, grand lyrical statement – and even if this was delivered more with drive and rhythmic purpose than full-throated joy, the excitement kept us buoyed up right to the end.
Pinchas Zukerman and his Players responded to the warmth of the audience’s appreciation with a movement from a work in the group’s “other” programme, the Andante movement from the Mendelssohn B-flat String Quintet, a supremely elegant coda to an absorbing evening’s music-making.

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