Helene Grimaud, piano
Elisabeth Batiashvili, violin
Janacek Suite from The Cunning Little Vixen
Ravel Piano Concerto in G
Dvorak Slavonic Rhapsody Op 45 No 3
Dvorak Hussite Overture
Martinu Frescos of Piero della Francesca
Dvorak Violin Concerto
Ravel Rhapsodie espagnole
Hearing the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra live, the
first thing that strikes one is the depth of sound of the 'cellos and
double basses so frequently lacking in our London orchestras. Equally
striking is this orchestra’s deep toned brass, with its penetrating
bite, whilst the strings have a sharp, angular, jagged quality; the
very antithesis of those sweet and homogenised strings we associate
with the Vienna Philharmonic. Many listeners accustomed to the smooth
style of playing of classical symphony orchestras in the UK may find
the Czech sound seems rather sour, even acidic in tone. However, far
from being a defect, this is the appropriate sound to play the Czech
music which featured heavily in the two concerts given by this great
orchestra. Like the St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) Philharmonic,
the Czechs have a distinctive grainy sound. However, what went against
the orchestra was the Russian-born conductor, who blurred the orchestral
textures and balance between players with his incoherent and, on occasion,
In the Janacek's Suite from The Cunning Little Vixen,
Vladimir Ashkenazy did not seem to be really conducting or leading the
orchestra; he had no sense of the dramatic contour of the work, sounding
as it did so totally disjointed and uncoordinated. A disappointing start
to the evening.
Things improved somewhat with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, played with
great passion and precision by Helene Grimaud; this wonderful pianist
combines great intelligence with a dazzling technique, her incredibly
nimble fingers making short work of even the most difficult arpeggios.
Unlike her conductor, she had total control, flare and rhythmic vitality.
Unfortunately, sometimes her playing was engulfed by the hall's notoriously
dry acoustic, and on occasion even drowned out by the orchestra’s excessively
loud playing, due entirely to Ashkenazy's bombastic conducting. Being
a renowned pianist himself, fellow feeling at least should have produced
a far more sympathetic and sensitive accompaniment.
In the Adagio assai the strings were far too
full-toned, almost eliminating the impact of the cor anglais; this was
solely due to the conductor's failure to grade the dynamics properly:
the strings ideally need to sound more muted here. Again, the Presto
lacked rhythmic bite and the essential jazzy inflection, so perfectly
realised by Abbado (with Martha Argerich) at the Proms in 2002. Ashkenazy’s
conducting was heavy handed with important dialogue between woodwinds
and pianist smudged; the conductor totally misconceived this concerto,
making it sound like a lush, full-blown 19th century romantic
work rather than the chamber-like, witty 20th century work
Part two of this concert consisted of just two short
works by Dvorak: the Slavonic Rhapsody No.3 and the Hussite
Overture. This must go down as one of the shortest second halves
of a concert on record. The Slavonic Rhapsody was conducted in
a rather foursquare manner, largely missing the essential lilt and rhythmic
vivacity this music calls for. While the orchestra played with polish
there seemed to be something almost routine and disinterested about
their performance, and hardly any of the players were paying attention
to the conductor.
The Hussite Overture was played with more flare,
even if Ashkenazy's rhythms were rather pedestrian. Again, the conductor
missed the drama and tragedy embedded in this music, conducting it more
like a mere flashy show piece for orchestra, when it should be so much
more than this. For instance, important dissonant brass passages were
toned down, completely negating their dramatic emphasis. Throughout
the concert there was no real rapport between conductor and orchestra.
This was a concert producing an uncomfortable tension between some beautiful
playing and bad conducting.
Surprisingly, after such as absurdly short second half,
there was no encore and conductor and orchestra fled the stage only
minutes after the applause begun. Some of the players clearly looked
bored, with both the harpist and side drummer yawning. The audience
seemed to evacuate their seats as fast as the players left the stage.
It looked like a very efficient fire drill. The desultory applause was
the shortest I have ever experienced at a classical concert.
Ashkenazy's second concert with the Czech Philharmonic
Orchestra was badly attended and even more disastrously conducted than
Martinu's The Frescos of Piero della Francesca
is one of the most sublime and etherial pieces of music written in the
20th century. Karel Ancerl (1908-1973), who was Principal Conductor
of the Czech Philharmonic between 1950 and 1968, recorded a paradigm
performance of the The Frescos revealing the shifting textures
and an acute sense of rhythm in this vibrant score. Under Ashkenazy's
baton the music sounded bland and rhythmically flat, the entire work
conducted all on one level, with no variation in dynamics or tension.
He failed to register the translucent nature of this music making the
string textures sound far to full-blown and heavy. The second movement,
Adagio, lacked any sense of revelation and wonder, sounding merely
opaque and formless. The last movement Poco allegro - was slack
and too static: the rhythms should have been much more taut and angular
and the brass interjections were not sharply etched. Important woodwind
passages were blurred where they should have been pointed.
The Dvorak Violin Concerto was a disaster for both soloist and conductor.
Elisabeth Batiashvili, a Georgian-born violinist in her early 20s, produced
an ugly, shrill and scrawny tone, playing in a crude and disjointed
manner, and largely devoid of legato. She scraped her way through the
concerto with startling ineptitude. In the first movement she had absolutely
no sense of phrasing at all: it was all on one screeching level. One
was not aware that there even was an Adagio as she played it
in exactly the same manner as both outer movements. Indeed, throughout
this concerto there was absolutely no variation in tone or mood. A lot
of notes were missing and she composed some of her own. She certainly
got little help from the orchestra and might have been playing unaccompanied;
Ashkenazy was in another world, merely wallpaper. The Finale: Allegro
giocoso, ma non troppo started completely flat and limp, lacking
any elan or joviality. I have never heard such a badly and boringly
conducted account of this usually joyous concerto. The orchestra seemed
detached and to lack any sense of occasion or drama, although there
was some wonderfully deep-toned 'cello and double bass playing.
Debussy's Jeux - poeme danse was conducted
as if it was a Liszt symphonic poem: sensational and loud. Debussy described
Jeux in a letter to the Paris newspaper Le Matin: "There is a
park, a tennis court; there is a chance meeting of two girls and a young
man seeking a lost ball; a nocturnal landscape, and a suggestion of
something sinister in the darkening shadows." While not wishing to sound
too literal in taking the composer at his word, one felt there was no
sense of the sinister or the darkness in this brash performance.
The conducting was coarse and rhythmically slack, with
the orchestra playing far too loudly. Ashkenazy misinterpreted this
elusive, chamber-like piece, turning it into a travesty of what the
composer intended. Listening to Monteux or Boulez conducting Jeux
demonstrates where Ashkenazy went wrong. Again the conductor had no
sense of the unfolding drama and treated the work fragmentarily, like
a puzzle with missing pieces.
This disappointing evening ended with a vulgar performance
of Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole. Again, the conductor failed
to understand the metre of the work and the interrelationship between
the movements. Throughout this dreadful performance the conductor lagged
behind the orchestra all the time, not so much conducting the orchestra
as trailing in its wake. Prelude a la nuit was played without
any feeling of the scene-setting velvety darkness and mystery so essential
to a performance of this movement, with the orchestra playing far too
loudly – something which had nothing to do with the hall’s acoustics.
The opening passages of Malaguena were again too loud, maybe
due to the fact that the conductor gave absolutely no direction to the
brass. The Habanera was too fragmented and choppy, with the conductor
failing to give the orchestra any clear sense of a steady beat, the
music frequently becoming broken up and lost. Most starkly, the Feria
was simply bashed out, and done so in a very crude manner. (If you want
to hear how this music should be conducted listen to Jean Martinon’s
account with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, RCA Red Seal High Performance
09026-63683-2 ADD 64:35).
These two concerts showed that whilst Ashkenazy, as
a conductor, may be at home with the Russian repertoire, he has no feeling
for French or Czech music. A fine, and on occasion, valiant orchestra
did its best in trying circumstances.