Pinchas Zukerman Shines in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday November 19, 2017 - 12:23:00 PM

On Thursday-Friday, November 16-17, veteran violinist Pinchas Zukerman returned to join with the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 from 1806. The results were outstanding. Most impressive of all was Zukerman’s masterful modulation of tone as he spun a gossamer thin, softly played tone on some of the highest notes of his register, while he also offered a brilliant and fulsome tone on other high notes in passages marked forte. Of course, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto presents a great many difficulties for the solo violinist, and the necessary modulation of tone may not be the greatest challenge one meets in this work. Through it all, Zukerman demonstrated superb mastery, whether in the fiery outbursts of the first movement cadenza or in the hushed high notes that seemed to float on the thinnest air,  

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto opens in a unique fashion with four beats of the timpani, and these four beats, sometimes with a fifth added on, turn out to structure much of this movement. The violin section of the orchestra immediately imitates the four-and-five beat theme of the timpani. Then the woodwinds introduce a sweetly melodic first theme, which undergoes extensive development before a second theme is introduced, this time in clarinet and bassoon. A second development and climax are heard before the solo violin makes its entrance with ascending octaves. Once engaged, the violinist works in team with the orchestra as they explore the material of the principal theme. In the midst of this exploration comes the incandescent and fearsomely difficult cadenza, performed in magisterial fashion by Pinchas Zukerman. Following the cadenza comes a moment of sheer lyricism, as the solo violin plays the principal theme in all its melodic simplicity.  

The second movement , a Larghetto, features muted strings playing the main, serenely beautiful theme while the solo violin embroiders a filigree around it. A second theme is heard on solo violin, exquisitely performed here by Zukerman. When the first theme returns it is in plucked strings by the orchestra, followed by the solo violin offering embroidery of the second theme. The final movement is a joyful Rondo Allegro, which opens with the solo violin performing a spirited main theme. After this theme is taken up by the full orchestra, a hunting call emanates from the horns, with decoration by the solo violin. After development of the first theme, a sentimental melody heard in solo violin presents the second theme. However, the first theme returns and undergoes further development until the solo violin and orchestra bring this concerto to a spirited close. Working beautifully in tandem, violinist Pinchas Zukerman and conductor MTT made beautiful music together. On Saturday, November 18, Munich-based violinist Viviane Hagner will substitute for Pinchas Zukerman. 

While this Beethoven Violin Concerto was unquestionably the highlight of this concert, I must say that it had poor competition in the form of the Symphony No. 4 by Charles Ives. For some godforsaken reason, MTT insists on foisting upon us the music of Charles Ives, and I, along with many listeners, have little regard for this eccentric composer. MTT tried to ‘explain’ Ives prior to performing the 4th Symphony by playing several of the American revivalist hymns that form the basis of Ives’ 4th Symphony. To my mind, this was unenlightening and, ultimately, merely boring. As for the Ives 4th Symphony itself, it struck me yet again as crude and blustering when it wasn’t simply sentimentally mawkish. To place this utterly primitive bit of music on the same program with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is a mistake of gigantic proportions on the part of Michael Tilson Thomas. Programming like this, as well as last week’s so-called American Masters program that offered two more treacly and bombastic pieces by Charles Ives, make us wish that 2020, when MTT gives up the reins of San Francisco Symphony, would come sooner rather than later.