Pinchas Zukerman/Royal Philharmonic, Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture

Pinchas Zukerman is a musician through whom history is stamped as through a stick of Brighton rock.

His career began when Isaac Stern and Pablo Casals spotted him in Israel aged 14, and took him to study in New York. He became a star in the classical firmament, and moved to London to become one of the biggest movers and shakers on the classical scene.

Watching him pick up his violin as both soloist and conductor in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, I was reminded of an interview I once had with him, in which he discussed the conductor’s role with startling candour. It was an extraordinary profession, he said: ‘Think about it. You’re the one person on stage that’s facing the wrong way: you don’t sit at the wheel of a car and drive looking backwards. And how much does the orchestra need you? Very little. It’s pantomime, an act. It’s the greatest dilettante art of all time.’

The way a lot of conductors wield their baton, that’s pretty well true, but it doesn’t allow for the interventions of a visionary – and such creatures (Boulez is one) do pop up from time to time. Zukerman’s way in his double role was to begin facing the orchestra and playing along in the tutti, before turning to face the audience for his maiden upward flight. Initially the work felt businesslike rather than inspired, with some rough edges in both his playing and theirs: he sailed very melodiously over the strings in the development section, but his first cadenza, though swashbuckling, would have been more accurately played by many a younger fiddler.

But in the slow movement he found his form, in both sweetness of tone and stratospheric accuracy: his unfussy embroidery on the theme had timeless grace and authority. The last movement swung along, powered less by his beat than by his sheer charisma. When he took his bow - after rounding things off with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony - the packed house erupted, with many on their feet, and suddenly he looked half his age. An encore? Of course. Grabbing a fiddle from a back-desk player, he launched into a Brahms lullaby, and got the audience to hum along. Then with a cheery ‘see you again’ he was off, knowing full well his audience would be back. Job done.