On his current Australian tour, the indefatigable Pinchas Zukerman seems to cherish playing a different programme in every venue. Next to violin concertos by Elgar and Brahms in Brisbane and Perth and a traditional violin-piano recital in Melbourne, he appeared with his own chamber ensemble, the Zukerman Trio, in Sydney partnered with two Canadian musicians, Amanda Forsyth (cello), and Angela Cheng (piano). The Sunday matinee lasted for just over one hour without an interval and, evidently due to the demand, was repeated the same evening.

Pinchas Zukerman © Cheryl Mazak
Pinchas Zukerman
© Cheryl Mazak

The concert began with Antonin Dvořák’s Four Romantic Pieces, Op. 75, not a particularly demanding or even ambitious set for violin and piano, yet one that brought out the very essence of Zukerman’s mastery with immediate and convincing force. The self-evident musicality of this 67-year-old magician of the violin who still clocks up over 100 concerts a year is utterly convincing, no matter what repertoire he plays. In a recent interview when asked about how he would like to be remembered, he responded with the affable understatement: “As somebody that played with a nice sound and in tune”. This he certainly does – and far more of course – but staying in the forefront of such a demanding profession is more complicated than that. Zukerman’s playing is not only beautiful to listen to; it is also a delight to watch. Like many of his generation (the names of Perlman, Barenboim, Ashkenazy and du Pré come to mind), he possesses an unwaveringly solid technique while exuding relaxed confidence. The eloquence of the bow-arm movements result in effortless changes between a myriad of dynamic shades, assisted by his uniquely sweet vibrato – so recognisable that it could be patented to his name and person. His profound understanding of phrasing and musical form bears testimony to rare talent, no matter how unpretentious its appearance.

His powerful projection also dominated the performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Sonata no. 1 in D Major, Op.12, and while sounding appropriate in many places (for example in the second movement’s stormy A minor variation with its brutal chords, sudden crescendos or rapid triplets, or in the mischievous off-beat accents in the last movement’s rondo theme), at other times it felt almost too overwhelming. This effect may have had more to do with the venue than with Zukerman’s playing: in the Utzon Room of the Opera House, even people sitting in the last row are less than ten metres away from the soloist. While observing the players from close distance certainly adds a special, intimate quality to the experience, acoustically it can be a disadvantage to be so near the stage.

Sandwiched between the two violin-piano pieces (a result of changed programming), Robert Schumann’s Adagio and allegro, Op.70 for cello and piano felt almost like a nod to equilibrium between the musicians. Under different circumstances Amanda Forsyth’s committed contribution would have sounded more than adequate, it shone somewhat pale in the glow of Zukerman’s playing before or after her.

The final work in the concert, Dvořák’s Piano Trio in E minor, Op.90, is nicknamed “Dumky”, which is slightly misleading as the composer wrote a handful of ‘Dumka’ movements (the singular form of the word). It refers to the frequent and sudden changes in mood and tempo in Slavonic instrumental compositions, and Dvořák’s famous Trio fulfils that role completely. Given its rhapsodic, wild changes in character, this work is truly Bohemian in both senses of the word and is as much fun for the performers as for the audience. Indeed, it was performed on this occasion with elegance and humour – or when needed, marked by serene pathos and a sense of impending doom. Angela Cheng’s accommodating pianism, here dramatic, there frolicsome, blended excellently with the string sound which was balanced and clearly articulated.

The best was left for last when, as an encore, one of Fritz Kreisler’s Viennese Marches was offered to the audience in a spirited, cheekily stylish performance.