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S & H Concert Review

Tchaikovsky & Rachmaninov, Christina Ortiz (pf), Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy, RFH, 15th October 2002 (AR)

TCHAIKOVSKY: Romeo and Juliet
RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No.1
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6, Pathétique

This concert of Russian works opened with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture and Vladimir Ashkenazy conducted this familiar work in a deliberately cool and detached manner, keeping the temperature down before gradually increasing the tension and passion. He knows exactly how to pace this showpiece, giving it both grandeur and austerity. He also knows how to build to and sustain a climax without allowing the music to become undisciplined. There was something powerfully direct and translucent about his reading which gave the performance an added impact. Notably powerful were the horns and percussion section, while the Philharmonia strings played with a swooning passion.

The orchestra played with even more intensity and passion in the rarely performed Rachmaninov First Piano Concerto. This concerto is part of Ashkenazy’s repertoire as a soloist, and he has played and recorded the work under Previn, so he was able to give beautifully prepared and shaped support, for instance evincing a fine, dark Russian sound from the brass section.

The writing for the piano in the Vivace - Moderato seemed erratic, anarchic and disjointed: a case of notes for notes sake, rather typifying an early work by an eager young composer. However, Brazilian-born Cristina Ortiz’ fiery athleticism matched Rachmaninov’s excessive note spinning. Ortiz, like all great virtuosi, made the concerto sound better than it really is. She threw herself into the work with tremendous physical force. One felt hearing her playing that this was not merely another run through, but as much a voyage of discovery for her as for an audience unfamiliar with the work. While Rachmaninov’s orchestration was rather bland the Philharmonia under Ashkenazy’s skilled guidance played with vivacity and precision.
The Andante was where Rachmaninov seemed to find his true voice, and Ortiz changed tone and mood, playing with dark and sombre tones which were perfectly complemented by a rich dark hued carpet of strings. The orchestration of the Allegro vivace is reminiscent of the last movement of the composer’s First Symphony and Ortiz was more than a match for the technical demands of this rapid-fire finale, switching up several gears to play with an almost manic ferocity. She rightly received an ovation for her dazzling performance.

Ashkenazy’s reading of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony was something of a revelation in its fresh conceptualisation. For Ashkenazy all the movements seemed to grow naturally out of each other; he treated the whole work as one huge arch. The opening Adagio was suitably reserved and subdued, slowly giving way to the highly charged and emotionally intense Allegro non troppos which was wonderfully articulated by both conductor and orchestra. Frequently this section can be blurred, but here even during the loudest sections, the expressive and beautifully played piccolo and flute could still be clearly heard. The trombones and horns were moody and sinister in tone, while the strings added extra poignancy to the famous yearning love theme. The conductor held the orchestra in check, never allowing the music to devolve into the merely sensational. It was the Philharmonia’s timpanist that gave this movement its nerve-shredding intensity.

The Allegro con grazia had a lilting buoyancy and Ashkenazy’s floating phrasing gave the music an uplifting graciousness and charm, whilst the Allegro molto vivace had spring and power with a great sense of forward drive. The conductor got the marching rhythm to perfection, achieving a great sense of swagger which stirred the audience to spontaneous applause only to be halted by Ashkenazy raising his arms and swooping straight into the last movement.

Many conductors play the Finale: Andante lamentoso far to slowly, milking every last ounce of pathos. Ashkenazy’s tempi were quite brisk, giving the music an urgency and pulsating drive. The Philharmonia suddenly took on a more dissonant sound, becoming stark and much blacker in tone. When the music finally died away there was a rapt silence before the audience applauded, so moved were they by the intensity and poignancy of this performance.

Thanks to Ashenazy’s assured tempi and structural grasp, as well as the enthusiasm of the Philharmonia, this was a highly revelatory performance of a very familiar work.

Alex Russell



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