Not quite threescore years and ten, Pinchas Zukerman is as reliable as ever and can still deliver handsome tone and a bombproof technique. This programme made clear his versatility as both violinist and conductor and underlined the polish of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Pinchas Zukerman © Cheryl Mazak
Pinchas Zukerman
© Cheryl Mazak

The evening got off to an atmospheric start in Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela (a work belonging originally to an abandoned operatic project of 1893 called The Building of the Boat) where luminous strings and the eloquent cor anglais brought rapt intensity to its evocative portrait – hauntingly still and mysterious. It was superbly controlled with dynamics and pacing ideally realised. Tone colour from bass drum and baleful trombones also brought rewards to a beautifully poised account.

Exchanging the baton for the violin, and with the merest nod here and affirmative gesture there, Zukerman led a dignified performance of Bruch’s evergreen Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor. Its rather too expansive opening paragraph eventually opened out for a fluid performance (with momentum if not excitement) that revealed Zukerman’s flawless intonation and effortless control of his forces. In the Adagio he combined tenderness (without sentimentality) with passion, his sweet tone lending aristocratic grace, and dynamics were finely calibrated. At times his direction was seemingly casual but all based on a thorough understanding and knowledge of the work and his players who were readily alert to subtle variations in mood and tempi.

The second half opened with an arrangement for solo cello and strings of Elgar’s Sospiri by the self-taught Danish composer Søren Barfoed (born in 1950). Joining the RPO for this bonbon was cellist Amanda Forsyth whose confidence did little to relieve the candy floss coating attached to this still-popular miniature. Its inclusion here was presumably intended to showcase the soloist, but choosing such a short work, charming as it is, was an unimaginative choice given the myriad opportunities for something more enterprising – possibly a work reflecting her South African birth or Canadian upbringing.

Making a far stronger impression was Elgar’s Enigma Variations on an Original Theme. Somewhat pedestrian at first, Zukerman found his stride in the explosive character portrait of W. M. Baker and went on to deliver a well-shaped and polished account with an exquisite “Nimrod” – spacious and restrained, unfolding with superb control and gravitas, and gaining emotional force for its closing largamente. Crisply articulated violins brought to life “Dorabella”, although it was a pity that violas were opposite first violins and soundboards turned away from the audience so the principal viola’s brief moment in the sun didn’t register as audibly as it might. A mellifluous clarinet charmed the ear in the “Romanza” – its tempo at one point virtually without a pulse but all the more effective for that. Elsewhere, there was playing of warmth and strong commitment, and at the close the organ (an ad lib addition) brought grandeur to this highly accomplished performance.