Pinchas Zukerman Recital

May 27 2015

Last night, I saw Pinchas Zukerman performing live for the first time. Zukerman is 66, definitely an advanced age for a concert violinist. Unfortunately, we got very little of the peak Zukerman, who was as close in sound and style to Itzhak Perlman as any violinist. Instead, we got a low energy performance of some fairly bland repertoire material.

First, a note on young Pinchas Zukerman. I listen to a lot of classical music radio, and a favorite game is to guess the violinist when a violin concerto is on. I could usually guess Itzhak Perlman correctly - he has unmistakable tone quality, vibrato, and an old school/new school mix (old in that there would often be gratuitous use of portamentos and tempo changes, new in that fast and technically challenging sections tended to be very clean).

The only times I ever guessed Perlman incorrectly would always be due to Pinchas Zukerman. He had the same wide vibrato, the huge romantic tone, and the general mastery of the challenging parts. It’s no accident that the two of them appeared to be genuine friends and played together so frequently in their younger days. I’ve probably watched the video below of Perlman, Zukerman, Barenboim, du Pre, and Mehta a hundred times. It always makes me smile to see so much young talent overflowing. Of course, it also makes me sad because of du Pre and the knowledge that Barenboim eventually leaves her and comes out like a giant dick.


PS. The best part of the video and the part that always makes me laugh is du Pre’s country bumpkin jaw when they play the freestyle Mendelssohn. I of course also enjoy the fact that Perlman’s intonation is basically perfect for the Mendelssohn opening even though he’s acting all casual.

That’s a long way of saying that I really did enjoy Zukerman and his Perlman-lite recordings. We didn’t originally plan to attend this concert. The original plan was to see Hilary Hahn perform the Korngold Concerto (an all-time favorite of mine, and plus, Hilary Hahn!). Unfortunately, she dropped out due to some medical issues. We couldn’t get a refund for that concert and instead had to settle for exchanging them for this recital.

Zukerman played a very simplistic repertoire: Elgar’s Six Pieces, Dvorak’s Four Romantic Pieces, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 1, Schumann’s Drei Romanzen, and finally Franck’s Violin Sonata. All these pieces are either deliberately written for amateurs (Elgar, Dvorak, and Beethoven) or they are simple enough that other instruments regularly perform them (the Schumann was originally for oboe, while the Franck is regularly played by cellists).

Usually in these recitals, there will be at least one piece that can’t be touched by the mere mortals, something like a Paganini, Sarasate, or perhaps a challenging 20th century sonata like Bartok’s. In this concert, I can honestly say that I could learn all the pieces and be happy with how I play them (and in some cases have already learned, as with the Franck and Dvorak). They are very much within reach for most amateurs.

I think Zukerman’s age definitely played a factor in this performance. In general, it was very low energy, as Zukerman rarely moved his body (I can’t recall a single time seeing him move his legs). His tone was often weak and wispy, even during times when the music called for warmth and resonance. His staccato was just sad - it barely left the string and was barely audible. And shockingly, Zukerman actually played some wrong notes during the last movement of the Franck. During an arpeggio run, his hand literally slipped while shifting, causing him to audibly play out the wrong notes. He then looked at his violin for a few seconds, as if to say “how did that happen?”.

There were, however, some signs of the old master at work. His wrist vibrato is still amazing, wide and sonorous. His fourth finger vibrato is just as good as the other fingers, something that is rare even for virtuosos. He still played very much with a romantic flair, adding lots of portamento into the Franck that I felt was a little excessive but still fun to hear. And his stage presence was still there. He did Kreisler’s Liebesleid for an encore and played lovingly with the tempo, at one point smiling at the audience, which resulted in a nice laugh. And he did get a standing ovation from the crowd.

A completely white-haired Zukerman got a standing ovation


Am I glad I went to this concert? On the negative side, I saw a clearly past-his-prime Zukerman play some fairly bland pieces (the Franck excepting). On the plus side, I got to finally see someone that was a big part of my musical childhood, someone that I likely won’t get to see live again.

My first (and only) time seeing Itzhak Perlman live was when he was already 60 and struggling to play over the orchestra in some Kreisler pieces and the Dvorak Romance. But when I think about Perlman, I think about his huge sound, his accuracy in intonation, and his wide vibrato. I think about how his recording of the Brahms Concerto with Carlo Maria Giulini can never be topped, as if Brahms wrote the concerto with Perlman in mind 100 years into the future, and not for Joachim. I think the same is true of Zukerman. I’ll forget this recital and remember Zukerman as the guy that sounded more like Perlman than anyone else.


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