Friday, December 18, 2009

Music review: Zukerman's Haydn shines with Israel Philharmonic

Amanda Forsyth and Pinchas Zukerman.

By Greg Stepanich

Two sides of the art of Pinchas Zukerman were on view Thursday night at the Kravis Center, and it was the Classical side that came out better than the Romantic, even though most of the time he was leading a big orchestra capable of all the emotive bells and whistles.

Zukerman, joined by his wife, the Canadian cellist Amanda Forsyth, is currently on tour with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, whose roots date to 1936, a dozen years before the official founding of the Jewish state. This is a Central Europe-style group, huge and powerful, and there was much to admire in the overall silkiness of the strings and the generally excellent level of performance.

But while Forsyth’s appearance with the orchestra in the second half was the occasion for a revival of some lovely, forgotten music by Max Bruch, the concert ended with a rather odd reading of the Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet overture, and it is to the first half that we should look for the best music of the night.

That first half was devoted to the music of Franz Joseph Haydn, beginning with the Symphony No. 83 (in G minor, The Hen). The silly title by which it has been known since its debut in 1787 truly is a distraction in this case, because left to its own argument, the symphony is a taut, tense essay reminiscent of Mozart at his most dramatic and early Beethoven at his most virile.

Today's concertgoers are accustomed to hearing Haydn symphonies with reduced authentic-instrument forces, but while there were no added instruments here, the large complement of strings gave the symphony a plush, almost epic sound. The secondary theme, grace notes and "clucking" oboe in all, came across as generously witty rather than scrappy and smirky, which was all to the good.

Pretty string playing dominated the Andante, with Zukerman and the orchestra getting much drama from the repeated stuck-in-place thirds that serve as such an important unifying device in the movement. The final two movements were enlivened by the well-played flute, horn and oboe work that added good color to the peppy proceedings, which again had an extra layer of grandeur owing to the size of the ensemble playing it.

It also was a well-conducted Haydn, and when Zukerman returned to the stage with violin in hand to solo in the Haydn C major Violin Concerto (Hob. VIIa: 1), a much earlier work, he carried over the same obvious respect and affection for the music. As a violinist, Zukerman doesn't appear to have lost any of the instrumental mastery that made him famous four decades ago; his tone is precise, round and penetrating, and his technique masterful.

In all, he and the orchestra made a fine case for this concerto, which has been overlooked too often. The brisk pace Zukerman led for the first movement helped give it rhythmic grit, nicely counterbalanced by a focus on wide dynamic contrast. The solo song that is the second movement was played with admirable purity and sweetness, while the finale had vigor and elegance. Most of all, it was a performance that provided a fine lesson in the apogee of the Classical style.

Forsyth was the soloist after the intermission in two short pieces by Bruch, a Canzone in B-flat, Op. 55, and an Adagio on Celtic Melodies, Op. 56. These are the kinds of pieces that Romantic composers cranked out in abundance as symphony orchestras became more established, and it was a pleasure to hear them, inoffensive and unproblematic though they are.

All that really was required of Forsyth for these two works was a strong lyrical line, and she provided it. Her tone was balanced and full, and her sense of cantabile sure. It would be good to hear her in more substantial fare, but this was a good piece of programming from a standpoint of variety, and one wants to applaud such things when they occur.

The concert closed with a sure-fire warhorse, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture of Tchaikovsky. Unfortunately, this was a very weird reading of the work, one that robbed it of almost all of its forward momentum and dramatic power.

Zukerman's initial tempos were quite slow, and the orchestra was not able to play most of those slow opening chord progressions together. That got things off on the wrong foot, and instead of erasing that memory with some razzle-dazzle in the street-brawl section, Zukerman instead chose a plodding, heavy tempo that had almost no fire.

When it came time for the famous love tune that has kept this piece in the repertory, other odd choices doomed it: After the first statement of the theme, Zukerman conducted the second, violin part of it with extremely soft dynamics and a near absence of any pulse, letting the notes fade in and out like a smashed accordion breathing its last after a fatal fall from a window several stories up. This was an interpretive choice that focused on the sheer sound of the music to the detriment of its structural purpose, so that the second half of the theme appeared almost to come from another piece entirely.

From there, it was impossible to get any sort of storytelling back on track, and the final section of the work mixed ponderous tempi and love-theme strangeness to the point of anticlimax. It's good for conductors to take risks and try new things, but this is a piece of early Tchaikovsky (despite its later revisions), and its seams show. It needs a rendition that brings out its strengths -- brilliant orchestral coloring and exciting writing, indelible melodies -- rather than one that looks for some stylistic subtleties that are largely absent.

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