The sheer size of Elgar’s Violin Concerto means that it can lead to some top-heavy programmes. At 50 minutes, it gives many a symphony a run for its money in terms of length. But place it in the first half, in the traditional concerto slot, and it leaves little space for a curtain raiser. So it was for this programme, where we went straight in to its brooding opening bars.

Pinchas Zukerman © Cheryl Mazak
Pinchas Zukerman
© Cheryl Mazak
The Berlin Philharmonic imbued these with the all the rich, Chesterfield-and-port luxuriousness you could ask for, and Zubin Mehta’s approach was mellow and relaxed, reluctant to whip things up too much too early. Pinchas Zukerman, at his first entry, showed himself to be very much aligned with the approach, his tone exuding a sort of oak-panelled, cigar-smoke richness and experience.

This wasn’t really enough, though. Playing from the score, and with his eyes fixed on it most of the time, Zukerman only rarely seemed to muster the intense engagement and concentration that this big beast requires if it’s not to sag or lose its way. Nor, it must be said, did he really display the necessary technical control or poise: the most virtuosic writing, such as the flourishes that open the finale, felt more scrabbly and skittish than mercurial; higher notes were reached only somewhat precariously; big double-stopped passages felt more mechanical than musical.

A telling moment came towards the end of the finale, where Zukerman ostentatiously exhaled in relief at the end of one of the more extended virtuosic passages the composer throws at his soloist. It was indicative of an account that often felt less like a performance than a play-through – impressive, no doubt, but still somewhat underprepared and provisional.

The violinist’s largely introspective approach brought some poetic moments, though, and was arguably well suited to much of what the programme note called Elgar’s the work’s “melancholisch-sehnsüchtige Melos” – its melos of melancholy and longing. But it was in the orchestra, when they jumped upon those briefly consoling snatches of melody that Elgar so sparingly gives them, that the greatest pleasures of this performance were to be found.

And the orchestra had much richer pickings in the second half. They certainly revelled in the sweeping melodies of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, even if Mehta, with his lugubrious account of the first movement’s slow introduction – surely something more like Adagio than the marked Andante – seemed in no rush to get to them. It took a little while for the subsequent Allegro con anima to sound at all allegro or animated, too, with Mehta instigating a tempo that ebbed and flowed freely with the movement’s emotional trajectory.

This approach, and a general reluctance to drag the music along by the scruff of the neck, led to a certain lack of momentum both here and in the finale, where the conductor tended to offer stately grandeur rather than the electricity and excitement this movement can – and for me should – generate. The result, combined with an orchestral sound often overladen with brass and somewhat airless in its tonal richness, came across as a little galumphing and heavy-footed, certainly more precision-engineered than lovingly turned.

The Waltz offered gentle respite, but the Andante was the undoubted highlight. It opened with as meltingly seductive a solo from principal horn Stefan Dohr as one could imagine, around which Andreas Ottensamer wove his clarinet line with supreme seductiveness. This moment, and the lyrical richness the orchestra produced in the sweeping tuttis showed some of the genuine warmth and affection that seemed on occasion to be missing elsewhere.