The air was thick with excitement in the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday night. Strangers turned to talk to each other and every conversation seemed to be about Pinchas Zukerman: their first Zukerman experience, favourite recordings and how far they had travelled to see their hero. And no wonder they were prepared to travel: not only was Zukerman to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto, he was also to direct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Fifth Symphony.

© Paul Labelle
© Paul Labelle

The evening did not get off to the most auspicious start: an energetic gesture from Zukerman failed to kick-start the Overture and there was a silence before the orchestra’s chord. From that moment on, it was clear that mere time-keeping was not Zukerman’s role: instead he played the orchestra as he does the violin, drawing out enormous phrases and vividly contrasting colours with heartfelt and energetic gestures. His flexible approach could have led to a lacklustre performance, were it not for Zukerman’s phenomenal awareness of the mood of the audience: the energetic speed at which he took the fast ending ensured no-one had the chance to grow tired of the more introspective moods in the piece.

If there was anyone in the audience wondering what all the fuss was about, soon they were to understand. Zukerman’s performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto was superlative. One of the most natural musicians ever to draw bow across string, he has the “X-factor” TV is so keen to discover; the indefinable magnetic energy which attracts the listener, to the point that his cadenzas demand a suspension of breath from every member of the audience. The first movement’s fragmented nature worked well with the soloist as director, creating a link between the purely orchestral episodes and those episodes with violin. The absence of a conductor, however, meant that the slow second movement risked dawdling; meaning Zukerman occasionally had to push the tempo during one of his solos and so risk losing the timeless quality of Beethoven’s Larghetto.

Aside from his comfortable stage manner, Zukerman’s greatest strength is his musical intelligence. This intelligence is extremely clear during his appearances as a conductor, however in his violin playing it is even more so. His flawless technique allows him limitless possibilities for the execution of every note; he then selects the most musically convincing option and carries it out perfectly. With a director so emotionally involved in the music, it fell to the RPO to organise his accompaniment in a sympathetic and engaging manner. This they achieved exceedingly well, never cracking under the pressure of a soloist who was so comfortable with the piece it was as though he was creating it on the spot.

Zukerman’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony also had this delightful improvisatory quality. Perhaps it was due to the freedom allowed by the lack of an over-rigid pulse, meaning the musicians were free to play with the tempo like stretching dough. The Symphony has far more scope for tempo fluctuations in it than the Egmont Overture, meaning that Zukerman’s laissez-faire technique was ideally suited to the larger work. This method led to Zukerman’s becoming Principal Guest Conductor in 2009: not only is he one of the world’s greatest musicians, with a fan-club to match, he gives the orchestra the freedom to perform with flexibility and charm. Zukerman excelled in this all-Beethoven concert, creating the contrasts in colour and mood so essential in any interpretation. I expect that this hugely intelligent musician will be just as successful with other works; and that most of Wednesday’s audience will be there to hear it.