Israeli-born violinist Pinchas Zukerman was one of the young talented artists brought to America by Isaac Stern, who was his legal guardian when he entered The Juilliard School to study with Ivan Galamian and Stern himself. His basic approach to playing shares prominent characteristics with that of Stern’s other Israeli protégés (Perlman, Fried, Mintz, Shaham): strength in both left-hand and right-arm technique, a rich continuous vibrato, general avoidance of portamento, tempo stability and a pursuance of tonal beauty and projection. Through international travel and globally-marketed recordings this recipe became universally familiar and for many is the very definition of the modern virtuoso violinist.
Zukerman’s tone, then, is that of the unreformed late-twentieth-century mainstream: that is to say, apparently unaffected by the revival of historical performing practices. Set against the stylistic approaches both of previous generations and of period performers, the playing of Zukerman (and his colleagues) can come across as routine, which is not really a fair judgement on a player who helped to cement the current understanding of what standard violin playing sounds like. Into this category, certainly, come his recordings of Beethoven’s Romance in F (2000), Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 (2003) and Vivaldi’s ‘La primavera’ Concerto (1999), although in all three Zukerman follows the old practice of directing the ensemble from the violin (he has also become increasingly recognised as a skilled orchestral conductor). The steady tempi throughout the Vivaldi make for a staid rendition and the Beethoven has few distinguishing features, whilst the modernist phrasing of the Mozart (pushing the tone right to the ends of phrases and using swelling dynamics to shape cantabile lines) leaves it wanting in terms of nuance and elegance. These are accomplished performances, though, in which Zukerman’s tone projects authoritatively, and it is this surety that in fact becomes the distinguishing feature of many late-twentieth-century performances.
Zukerman’s earlier recordings include a strong (if equally conventional) Mendelssohn E minor Concerto from 1971 and a Tchaikovsky Concerto (recorded at his German debut in 1969) which is, by contrast, more committed and exciting, with well-articulated passagework in the first movement, a clear-cut and energetic finale, and some passionate but suitably-veiled tone in the slow movement.
Whilst at The Juilliard School Zukerman took up the viola in order to take part in chamber ensembles; interestingly, his recording of Per Nørgård’s Viola Concerto (1992) is more imaginative and tonally-varied than the majority of his violin recordings, perhaps revealing either a personal affinity with this deeply-impassioned, quirky and sometimes astringent music, or suggesting a fundamentally different approach on an instrument associated with inner textures of chamber or orchestral works. Whatever the reason, Zukerman proves a powerful advocate of this piece and shows an admirable command of the viola.
In comparison with his more charismatic contemporary, Perlman, Zukerman’s playing has similar levels of refinement but rather less personality; this is not to denigrate, however, the achievements of one of the most well-known violinists of recent decades who regularly performs over 150 concerts a year and has released more than 110 recordings, twenty-one of which have received Grammy nominations.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)