“ … a collaboration that was prevented by Pushkin’s death by duel in 1837” is perhaps an appropriate programme-note quote to introduce a concert of romantic music from that most glamorously romantic of countries in the 19th century, Russia. The collaboration in question was between Pushkin and Glinka in reference to the opera Ruslan and Lyudmila, whose overture opened Tuesday night’s concert given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Pinchas Zukerman. The Glinka was followed by Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto and Rachmaninov’s second symphony, to create a satisfactory programme of popular classics to warm a chilly late-winter evening.
Zukerman took the Glinka at a sprightly pace, although not so fast that the complexities of the orchestral counterpoint were lost in the rush, and it set an expectant tone for the Tchaikovsky.The soloist for the concerto was the Russian pianist Olga Kern who took a no-nonsense attitude to the work: she stared resolutely at the keyboard, sparing no glances at all for the audience, and barely an acknowledgement of Zukerman’s presence, communicating the piece entirely through her adamantine approach. The overall impression was that Olga Kern had come to lay down her interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, that she would play all of the notes as she wanted them, and that everyone else would just have to keep up. It wasn’t a bad performance, by any means – Kern was sensitive to the idiom, allowing some pulling back on the climaxes, and the first-movement cadenza was adroitly handled; her occasional slight rubato emphasis on the second beat of the bar in the last movement provided an interesting dimension to the melody. But, given Zukerman’s obvious rapport with the orchestra in the other works, and his ability to give a piece warmth and breathing room, it was clear that a more sensitively managed understanding between soloist and conductor might have engendered a more engaging performance.
In the Rachmaninov, however, Zukerman came into his own. Although there are beautiful moments for woodwind in the piece (particularly the introduction, by the clarinet, of the second theme in the unctuous third movement), the grand tear-jerker melodies are given to the strings, and the violinist in Zukerman encouraged the orchestra to give these full rein. The string tone throughout was magnificent, particularly from the ‘cello section, who managed both warmth and edge all in the same passages, and there were moments when the violins were so carried away by the sweep of the material, that some of the players almost rose from their seats. It is arguable that the brasher moments of the symphony were muted because of this – recorded performances often highlight the raw brass sound, particularly in the energetic parts of the second and fourth movements – but the work is, at heart, a platform for the violins to shine, and shine they did, to create a performance as exciting, glamorous and romantic as a duelling scar.