In anticipation of Nicolaj Znaider’s London conducting debut with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), I had been pondering about which solo violinists have made successful transitions to a conductor. The most obvious name would be Menuhin, although he was perhaps more a great musician than a technically great conductor. Other names that come to mind are Zukerman, Kantorow, Zehetmair and more recently Andrew Manze, none of whom have totally given up violin playing and have dual careers.
Znaider has been harbouring a wish to conduct for about five years, and he has been learning the art from many of the maestros he has performed with, including Sir Colin Davis and Barenboim. Although this was his London conducting debut, he has already guest conducted the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Russian National Orchestra amongst others, and on Sunday night, he seemed very assured on the podium. We could also sense that he had a good rapport with the musicians of the LSO with whom he has performed numerous times as a soloist. It was also interesting to note that the string section sounded even better than usual (perhaps a subconscious reaction when playing for a great violinist).
The concert consisted of a full-blown Romantic programme of Wagner, Schumann and Brahms. As a violinist, Znaider is renowned for his rich and warm tone and lyrical playing, and such characteristics were evident in his conducting approach too. Wagner’s Meistersinger overture opened solidly – in fact, his approach (including his tempo) is reassuringly old-fashioned, showing none of the recent trend for swift tempo and period-style performance. The orchestra played with a lush and rich sonority – the brass section in great form – although at times the sound became saturated and Znaider could have controlled the balance a little more.
I think programming Schumann with Wagner is difficult at the best of times, and on this occasion, performing Schumann’s poetic and intimate piano concerto after Wagner’s grandiose overture did the former no favours. The soloist Saleem Abboud Ashkar, although technically proficient, performed this work as a conventional concerto (i.e. solo vs orchestra), whereas the work needs a more chamber music approach, responding sensitively to and melding with the orchestra. In the first movement, the flow of the music was too frequently interrupted by rubatos in the solo playing. The lyrical opening of the second movement sounded ponderous and here too the music kept slowing down. Things improved in the third movement which was lively and the pianist, conductor and orchestra finally came together in spirit as well as performance.
As a conductor, Znaider was most successful in the Brahms’ Symphony No. 4. I genuinely felt that he got inside the music, especially in the third and fourth movements. In general, his tempi were expansive and he gave the orchestra plenty of space to play, bringing out wonderful solo playing from the wind principals (including a poignant solo from flautist Gareth Davies in the final movement). The horns (the brilliant David Pyatt unusually playing third horn) and the trumpets sounded glorious too. In the first two movements, there were times when the music didn’t quite flow, and Znaider needed to inject a little more forward momentum. It didn’t help that sometimes he made the orchestra phrase the melody like a solo violinist would, slowing down at the end. However, the intensity of the music-making palpably rose at the beginning of the third movement and was maintained throughout the grand final Passacaglia.
Znaider has said that for the moment he has no plans of giving up his violin playing and that his playing and conducting enrich each other and deepens his understanding of music. Only time will tell whether he would make a great conductor, but his grounded and sincere attitude to music bodes well for a successful dual career.