As part of the Pinchas Zukerman Festival, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra presented a series of Romantic-era classics for an ever-expanding orchestra, beginning with Elgar’s wistful and melancholic Serenade for Strings and climaxing with Dvořák’s barnstorming Symphony no. 8 in G major. These pieces sandwiched three by Tchaikovsky, in a programme that lacked flow; the stop-start nature not helped by a change in orchestral forces after almost every piece.

Pinchas Zukerman © Paul Labelle
Pinchas Zukerman
© Paul Labelle

Elgar’s Serenade for Strings made for an understated opening, but one that showcased the RPO’s plush string section. The parts were neatly and clearly balanced and Zukerman and the orchestra infused Elgar’s stoic writing with some passion. An accomplished, if not memorable, performance. The lack of energy continued with an arrangement of the Andante Cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet no. 1 for solo cello and orchestra. Despite Tchaikovsky’s pathos-infused melody, based on a folk song he had heard at Kamenka some two years before writing the piece, this was a slightly wooden performance. There was a little attempt by Zukerman or cellist Amanda Forsyth to phrase or shape the lines or even the dynamics.

After this, Zukerman led the orchestra from the violin in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade mélancolique. Whilst Zukerman’s solo violin was more impassioned, three pieces had now gone by with a barely a change in tempo. The orchestral sound was clear and rich, but the playing perfunctory.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, which closed the first half, should have been an opportunity for orchestral fireworks, or at least some real energy and feeling. Whilst the concert did begin to settle into a natural rhythm, the piece never quite took off. The tempi were slightly erratic, a very steady opening, but one that lacked tension, and then an uncomfortable accelerando into the faster passages. The orchestral sound was, once again, polished and imposing but the interpretation itself was not interesting.

A lot of the frustration, and lack of musicality, seemed to come from Zukerman’s very literal conducting style. He did not seem at one with the orchestra and there was a lack of natural communication and flow. Tempi were beat very clearly and instruments pointed to and singled out at very obvious points.

This was most evident during the last piece, Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, completed in 1889 and first performed in Prague the year after. A highly experimental work, particularly in the structure of its opening movement, Dvořák had intended to write a score that was “different from other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out in new ways”. Like many of Dvořák’s best works, it brims with spirit, inventive melodies and rhythmic drive. Again, the orchestral playing could not be faulted but there was little sense of direction or originality. The wild Slavonic dances that pepper the rhapsodic final movement could have brought the house down. However, Zukerman indicated every brass trill in this movement’s main theme by jiggling his hand around above his head, which both took away the element of surprise and fun and felt completely superfluous. This evening was far more average than it should have been given the clearly talented orchestral forces and sparkling, crowd-pleasing scores.