A troika of Russian warhorses trotted out from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra stable, with Pinchas Zukerman guiding the reins. The trouble is, once into the paddock they veered off in wildly different directions. Glinka cantered with a merry swagger, Rachmaninov surged down a lush, romantic path, but Tchaikovsky limped along stubbornly. Three completely different performances that left me perplexed.

Pinchas Zukerman © Cheryl Mazak
Pinchas Zukerman
© Cheryl Mazak

Glinka’s overture to his opera Ruslan and Lyudmila impressed, the RPO’s sound bright and punchy, benefiting from not being driven at a hell-for-leather speed. Woodwind solos had character, given room to breathe by Zukerman, and Matt Perry tackled the timpani with gusto. A breezy opener to get us in the Russian spirit.

The performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor was a huge disappointment. There was no doubting Olga Kern’s ability, with steely-fingered precision to rattle off the famous opening chords, and she hurdled tricky passages with a clean pair of heels. It seems strange to think that Nikolai Rubinstein initially dismissed the concerto as “unplayable”! But Kern’s playing was cold and almost completely detached from her orchestral partners: as if blinkered, staring straight at the keyboard, with just the occasional glance at Zukerman to coordinate cues. It wasn’t until the oboe melody resurfaced towards the end of the central movement, accompanied by a right-hand piano trill, that Kern actually sought eye contact with a single member of the orchestra. It was as if she was playing in her own bubble, impervious to what everyone else was doing. Thunderous chords were ripped from the keyboard in the Allegro con fuoco’s closing pages, but to little effect.

Where Kern was icy, the orchestra was just soggy. Back desks of the violins were on autopilot, viola players sighed and puffed. The opening of the second movement was leaden in its tread. In short, a sense of routine shrouded their performance. Does the RPO wheel out this concerto too often in its all-Tchaikovsky galas? Can one really tire of this music? The single glimmer of hope was when an oboe passage was met by a warm smile from the principal flautist.

After this lacklustre performance, quite how Zukerman drew such a luscious rendition of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony remains a mystery. Right from the start, with conducting that was almost apologetic in its understatement, Zukerman caressed the string lines sumptuously, moulding them, shaping phrases and the most glorious, sweet, unctuous sound emerged. Violas injected dark, grainy dynamism, cellos and basses underpinned the foundations solidly. It was like riding in a richly upholstered carriage.  Speeds weren’t hurried, yet there was a sense of momentum and the performance clocked in almost exactly on the 60 minute mark. The Adagio was as lushly opulent as you’d wish, allowing Katherine Lacy’s fine clarinet solo space to bloom. As a violinist, Zukerman perhaps naturally favoured the strings, coaxing them gently, even emitting a little groan of satisfaction at one point. Brass and percussion pulled out the stops for an energetic gallop in the finale. A fabulous end to a curiously uneven concert.

***11