Davies Hall, San Francisco
January 25, 2016
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Pinchas Zukerman, conductor and violinist
Beethoven – Egmont Overture, Opus 84
Mozart – Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219
Elgar – Enigma Variations, Opus 36
I missed hearing the Royal Philharmonic last February in London. But while there, I found myself often reminded of the problems British orchestras and audiences face. Festival Hall, which once sounded like a pretty good hi-fi system, disposed of its Helmholtz “resonators” in a recent renovation and in so doing lost half its reverberation time, however artificial. It now sounds like NBC’s late unlamented Studio 8H.
The Barbican, stashed away in what might as well be a concrete bunker, sounds good when it’s half empty—but that may be because it’s so hard to find. Caveat audience—take the wrong door and they’ll steer you to a gynecologists’ convention. Heard with seats full, the Barbican is nearly as dead and clinical as Festival Hall. And as a facility it lacks external vistas. Settle into its claustrophobic maze at halftime for a glass of something and you may find yourself, as I did, disturbing the homeless. Sort of kills the romance….
London still has five great orchestras, but they, too, struggle to have a home. From a broadcasting standpoint, the Albert Hall is glorious. But it holds too many people. Recently, a new venue for the London Symphony is being proposed, and some land has been found. Cross fingers for a successful hall….But the Royal Philharmonic may be suffering most. This venerated ensemble, founded by Sir Thomas Beecham, is forced to play in Cadogan Hall, a converted Christian Science church off Sloane Square accommodating only 950 patrons. Cadogan is too small for its purpose, and concerts I have heard recorded there lack depth and charm. The Royal Philharmonic, as I ruefully note, is down to a complement of eighty players as it is. No longer quite a top dog, it seems.
So how did they sound? Like an enormous chamber orchestra, I kept thinking. This may be the result of Pinchas Zukerman’s conducting—which features supple and clear violinistic phrasing. I was reminded at times of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Zukerman has lost none of his deep rich tone, so the Mozart concerto was satisfying. And though time beating from Zukerman’s bow arm seemed minimal, the attentive phrasing he received spoke to considerable preparation.
I was less happy with the Egmont Overture. Zukerman seemed to strive for bigness but created a lumbering sense of strain instead. It was OK for a curtain-raiser, but one was reminded that Beethoven can, with the help of a good concert hall, be more polished than this. Karajan and Berlin this was not. I found myself wondering whether Cadogan Hall and budgetary problems prevent the orchestra from developing a deeper sonority.
Fortunately, a fine Enigma Variations must be in these players’ national blood DNA by now. It sounded phenomenally well in Davies Hall—supple and powerful. I missed hearing our Ruffati organ contribute to the Finale, so enjoyable when De Waart would conduct it. (Zukerman chose to play the version without organ.) But in every other way the performance was resplendent—with rich portamento, broad brass crescendi and a dog-bounding timpanist to die for. Pinchas Zukerman and his players proved utterly unified throughout. And their group hug onstage at the end—after a beautiful second movement encore from the Serenade for Strings—seemed natural, unforced and right.
The emotional heart of Enigma (and perhaps the enigma itself), it bears saying, is to be found in the famous Nimrod variation, which should bring one near tears when done this well (as it was)—and which should fire one’s sense of romance. I was happy to see a young couple two rows below me had gotten the message—lots of leaning-in and earnest finger twining…
The “enigma” itself has been subject to speculation ever since Elgar mentioned it—the “theme not stated.”
Some scholars have even tried “Pop goes the Weasel” in counterpoint. But it may be that the theme is an idea. I always thought it unusual that Nimrod recounts a walk taken by two men and “something that happened” between them. It’s clearly love music. So, was Elgar gay? And are most of the “friends pictured within” gay? I say “most,” because the composer suggests the theme appears and reappears. The “spinster on the hill,” for instance? But not Elgar’s wife, perhaps, “C.A.E.”? British biographers are always infuriatingly reticent on sexual matters, so there have only been hints of this in descriptions of Elgar’s life, including his redacted deathbed confession to Newman that “All my life I have been a ….”
Whatever its emotional basis, the Enigma Variations is one of the great works of the repertory. Indeed, along with the Brahms Haydn Variations it stands at the top of the variation sweepstakes. Despite all the elegance and dignified British serenity in his music, Elgar was essentially a tortured introvert. If you have a heart, his music will mean something to you. I do. And it did.