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Zukerman és Forsyth headshot 2 edited by Cheryl Mazak

It seems that in recent years the management of the Budapest Festival Orchestra has been successful in reaching an agreement with the agents of Pinchas Zukerman: not even two years ago, in May 2012 the Israeli violinist currently living in Canada played Beethoven’s concerto conducted by Iván Fischer at the Palace of Arts, and here he was again, this time at the Academy of Music, as a soloist and conductor in one. Audiences need these kinds of artists. Zukerman is a global star with a concert history half a century long – a living legend if we were to make a platitudinous remark. When he performs as a guest, interest and success are guaranteed.

Of course, there is another reading of the event. Although I have been eager to attend every concert in Budapest that featured Zukerman as guest performer for decades (and listened to him on recordings in the meantime), I have never ever found his play original or exciting. During concertos, this kind of average performance was quite alright, especially in the decades when Zukerman was at the pinnacle of his instrumental knowledge, which made us ignore the lack of invention and individual actions, but when he gave a sonata evening, in the fragile communication system of chamber music it became fully apparent how formal and how unmeaningful this way of playing music is. And now that the technique and intonation of the sixty-six year-old violinist has lost its old lustre, there is nothing but routine and a slightly bored way of playing music, listening to which one unintentionally begins to wonder why the star continues to tour all around the world, when he himself must hear the most how hollow what he does has become.

This time Zukerman did not come alone. He did not even perform alone on stage during concerto productions: first he played along with his wife, cellist Amanda Forsyth, a double concerto in B-flat major (RV 547) by Vivaldi, then she performed two Max Bruch compositions, Canzone (Op. 55) and Adagio (Op. 56), followed by the first four movements of Mozart’s Haffner Serenade (K. 250) conducted by Zukerman, who even performed the solos before the interval. In the second part Zukerman returned to the stage only as a conductor to direct the Festival Orchestra performing the Italian Symphony (Op. 90) by Mendelssohn.

When hearing the sound, phrasing and accents of the Vivaldi concerto and faced with the smoothness, roundness and polished details of the whole performance, I thought on the one hand how bizarre it is that this performance, which is completely unresponsive to the essence of Baroque music, is conducted by Zukerman, directing an orchestra that has learned the historical style with incredible artistic flexibility and aptitude in recent years, working together with conductors such as Reinhard Goebel, Jos van Immerseel and Nicholas McGegan. On the other hand, I was thinking what Zukerman’s mentality as a musician might mean to us, a mentality that does not take any notice of the historical performing arts of the past sixty years in music history in any way. The question is rhetorical, it should not be answered, fortunately – but I did not raise it for fun. Not even the two Bruch pieces put me in a good mood: flat and dull opuses, rightly forgotten, and although Mrs. Zukerman – who is eighteen years younger than her husband and therefore instrumentally more adequate – played rich sounds and used excellent techniques during her performance, she did it with complete indifference. We Hungarians – who live in the same country as one of the most significant living cellists of the world, Miklós Perényi, and are lucky to hear him playing quite often (but never often enough) – cannot watch this way of playing the cello in admiration.

Zukerman, as mentioned earlier, performed both as a conductor and a violin soloist during the first four movements of the Haffner Serenade, which were played now as a separate piece of music. In both cases he avoided key expressions, and only scratched the surface with a light hand, never venturing into the deeper layers of the musical characters. Looking at his face, I could hardly tell which of us was more bored with the formal conducting and playing the violin: me, the listener, who is clear about the emptiness and indifference of this way of playing music, or him, who is doing it on stage? There is one other question: did the situation improve after the interval, did the musical excitement grow during the Italian Symphony by Mendelssohn? Not from my position. Zukerman elegantly conducted a polished and intelligent performance by the Festival Orchestra, a performance they already knew so well. I think, however, that another interpretation of the Italian Symphony could nevertheless persuade me to end on a positive note. The Festival Orchestra gives the greatest performances when Iván Fischer directs them, and not by chance, since his way of conducting is full of invention, fire and experimental spirit. This time the orchestra was not directed by Iván Fischer, but was left completely alone: the person standing on the podium was present in body only. The musicians could have lowered the quality of the performance if they followed the conducting that was without conception. But this did not happen, the excellent orchestra had maximum artistic self-esteem. The BFO, even as “an orchestra without a conductor”, played a polished and fine Italian Symphony in a strict and composed way. They did not owe us or Zukerman, or Mendelssohn for that matter, this demand for quality and presence of mind, but themselves alone and the successful past thirty years – and the signs are that they know it. 9 February – Academy of Music. Arrangement: Budapest Festival Orchestra