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MUSIC REVIEW

At Symphony Hall, a comfortable display of old-fashioned virtuosity

Pinchas Zukerman (pictured in 2008) played a Celebrity Series recital in Boston Sunday. Pinchas Zukerman (pictured in 2008) played a Celebrity Series recital in Boston Sunday. (Misha Japaridze/ AP/ File)
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / November 24, 2010

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Violinist (and, later, violist) Pinchas Zukerman and pianist Yefim Bronfman gave a Celebrity Series recital on Sunday with an old-fashioned feel — and it was interesting to consider why it felt old-fashioned. It featured a solidly canonic program, for instance, with sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms; current practice would likely spice such a program with novelty or rarity, the better to cut through the marketplace’s noise.

The mood was casual. Even Beethoven’s appearance — via the Opus 24 “Spring’’ Sonata — was comparatively placid. That fit Zukerman’s playing, which exuded a kind of polished, frictionless mastery. He made it all seem easy, in a somewhat anachronistic way. Nowadays the norm is intensity and electricity, evidence, perhaps, that a) transcendental experiences have become an expectation of classical music, not just a possibility, and/or b) more people now listen to music than make it, and have no sense of the technical challenge behind such ease.

Zukerman and Bronfman had obvious rapport. In Mozart’s B-flat Major Sonata (K. 454), they moved in gentle tandem, the balanced phrases given warm shape. None of the choices was eccentric, surprising, or designed to reveal unexpected novelties. It was not a performance that wore any deep personal connection on its sleeve. It marked another divide, between personality and taste: Zukerman as a distinct personality was distant, but as a purveyor of impeccable taste, he was very much present.

That hinted at a further polarity: comfort and risk. Classical performance has always trafficked in risk — aesthetic, virtuosic, or interpretive — but such risk has increasingly become a primary rationale. Zukerman and Bronfman, by contrast, stayed solidly in their comfort zone all afternoon. (The one place Zukerman pushed the envelope, attacking Beethoven’s accents with a viola-like weight on his bow, was distractingly jarring.) The energy in Symphony Hall seemed to follow suit, the audience lulled into cushioned repose.

But even a listener accustomed to more fervent fare could appreciate the power of easygoing accomplishment. In the concert’s second half, when Zukerman traded his violin for a viola and offered the Opus 120 No. 2 E-Flat Major Sonata of Johannes Brahms, the comfort provided estimable sustenance. There was no interpretive shake-up, no edge, but a technically unimpeachable, fluently refined reading of a masterpiece of intricate amiability — as was the pair’s encore, an intimate rendition of the fourth of Robert Schumann’s Op. 113 “Märchenbilder.’’ Luxury, it turns out, has its virtues.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.

PINCHAS ZUKERMAN

With Yefim Bronfman, piano

At: Symphony Hall, Sunday