Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Concerto for violin and cello in A minor, op.102 [33:09]
Symphony no.4 in E minor, op.98 [40:22]
Amanda Forsyth (cello)
Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra/Pinchas Zukerman (violin)
rec. live 4-5 February 2015 at the Southam Centre of the Arts, Canada (concerto), 26-27 December (symphony)

Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth are a married couple, so you would expect them to have an enhanced degree of mutual understanding in a work such as this - and they do. The recording of this live event brings them well forward, but also manages to capture the orchestra well. However, though the playing of the solo parts is very fine, many of the orchestral ritornelli are lacking in character and passion, for make no mistake, despite its reputation for austerity (this is Brahms’s final large-scale work) this is impassioned music. The very first tutti makes my point for me; heavy and rigid in Pinchas Zukerman’s hands, not a convincing opening at all.

The slow movement fares better; the wind playing, so important here, is of high quality, and the soloists clearly enjoy getting stuck into Brahms’s sumptuous melodic lines. But the finale, though lively enough, suffers from the same lack of spontaneity and fire as the first movement.

This serves to remind one that Zukerman, though a superlative violinist, is not on the same level as a conductor. Thus his Brahms 4, which follows the concerto, is very run of the mill; again, the playing is refined, with excellent ensemble and solo contributions. But the first movement lacks that sense of hovering on the brink of despair that the best performances bring out. I still know of no recorded performance to surpass Karajan’s with the Berlin Philharmonic of 1978, and not only does Zukerman fail to get into the same league in that first movement, he also misses out on the poetry that Karajan and his players find in the Andante; the first entry of the string body should be a magical moment, hushed and full of expectancy, but here it sounds prosaic, matter-of-fact.

The rumbustious scherzo gets a much more convincing work-out, with the piccolo and triangle (both making their only appearance in a Brahms Symphony) pleasingly audible. On the other hand, the powerful finale lacks the momentum it needs, the sense of urgency. There are some lovely wind solos along the way, but conversely some of the all-important trombone entries are tentative and lacking in edge.

I suppose that, with an issue like this entering such an exceptionally competitive area of repertoire, one is bound to ask oneself if this CD really justifies its existence, though Zukerman’s many admirers (of his violin playing) may want to respond positively.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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