Bronfman brings the artistry, Zukerman provides the Zzzzzzzs

April 04, 2014
Pinchas Zukerman performed with Yefim Bornfman Wednesday night at Symphony Center.

Pinchas Zukerman performed with Yefim Bronfman Wednesday night at Symphony Center.

A coincidence of the concert calendar brings the two most overrated violinists in the business to Chicago within a week. Itzhak Perlman will perform at Lyric Opera Sunday and Pinchas Zukerman was heard in recital with Yefim Bronfman Wednesday night at Symphony Center.

Both violinists have been coasting on their early reputations for decades. Yet, unlike Perlman, Zukerman has at least maintained his technique, and one hoped that being paired with a gifted pianist like Bronfman would strike some sparks.

That didn’t happen. While there were brief moments that flickered to life, Zukerman was still the coolly disengaged presence heard on the same stage two years ago in his somnolent Brahms concerto with the CSO.

Schubert’s Violin Sonatina in A Minor led off the evening and set the tone. After a light and graceful opening by Bronfman, Zukerman entered with a rich, gleaming tone and throbbing vibrato that sounded all wrong for this intimate music, jarringly clanging with his colleague’s delicate touch.

And so it went. Zukeman’s blandly unvaried high-sucrose style was all over the gentle Andante, brought little lightness to the Menuetto and no excitement to the closing Allegro beyond playing the notes correctly.

One thought that Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in C minor, Op. 30, no. 2, might provide more congenial terrain with its dark atmosphere and bold thematic contrasts. Yet Zukerman’s sedate soft-focus playing lacked crucial dramatic edge and expressive point. Bronfman’s nuanced and sensitive touch in the Adagio initially seemed to draw a tender and more calibrated response from Zukerman. But soon it was back to the syrup with the violinist’s gelatinous, one-size-fits-all vibrato poured over everything. Would the world stop turning on its axis if the violinist played a single bar without the heaving vibrato? Bronfman’s fiery playing in the sonata’s finale inspired some belated involvement from Zukerman, but too little too late.

Yefim Bronfman

Yefim Bronfman

It’s not Zukerman’s aloof stage deportment or the fact that he played all the music from a score—Bronfman did too Wednesday night. Zukerman just doesn’t seem to care. There was zero passion, no intensity and little engagement with any of the music, let alone eloquence or interpretive depth. It’s striking how a violinist can play music in such a sticky-sweet style while simultaneously sounding so cold and charmless. One wished one had Alberich’s Tarnhelm to make Zukerman disappear and hear some solo piano music from Bronfman, a genuinely great artist.

If the concert was notable for anything, it’s that Zukerman proved it’s possible to be incredibly boring on two different instruments the same night. Brahms’ Viola Sonata No. 1 was cut from the same cloth with oversugared sentiment, straitened dynamics, soft attacks and a tone that turned fitfully sharp. One listened through the violin to the shaded, expressive and detailed playing of Bronfman, one of our finest Brahms pianists.

When you have more empty seats after intermission than at the beginning of the concert, you’ve got a problem, Houston. Not a great night for Chicago audiences—or for Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms.

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