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.