There was a certain amount of confusion around this
concert. First, it was announced that the tenor Ilya Levitsky had cancelled
due to a throat infection and that Mark Tucker had taken his place at
the eleventh hour. Next, when we did eventually start, there was confusion
as to what piece we would hear first. Actually, it was (as originally
programmed) Prokofiev’s Five poems of Akhmatova, Op. 27, performed
(exquisitely) by soprano Elena Prokina accompanied by Ashkenazy.
When I first heard Prokina live at the Proms some years
back, her status as a star (in the best sense of the word) seemed undeniable.
The chance to hear her in the Akhmatova settings was a true privilege.
The beauty of the poems of Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) chosen by Prokofiev
lies in their restrained beauty, and they brought out the more lyrical
side of this composer. Prokina was in her element, her characterisation
of the text stunning, from the warmly autumnal ‘Memories of the sunlight’
(No. 3) to the power in ‘Greeting’ (No. 4). The fifth and final song,
‘The king with grey eyes’, however, is surely Prokofiev at his finest,
and both interpreters seemed to realise this, Ashkenazy setting the
atmosphere perfectly with the ominous tread of his left hand. It was
Ashkenazy, however, who seemed the weak link here overall: his tone
lacks the ability for true depth that gives it a one-dimensional sheen.
The Shostakovich, originally planned as the grand finale
to the evening, actually came before the interval. The Suite on Verses
by Michelangel Buonarotti, Op. 145 is a late-Shostakovich masterpiece
and carries all the hall-marks of his late style, from sparseness of
lines to bleak emotional statements. It is difficult to imagine a finer
interpreter than baritone Sergei Leiferkus. He can be authoritative
and defiant (as in the anti-religious ‘Truth’: ‘to expect any reward
from you is like expecting fruit from a dry tree’) or almost unbearably
touching (as in ‘Night’). The miracle of his voice is that its powerful,
burnished lower register loses none of its tone or penetrating communicative
effect as it reaches into his higher register.
The Buonarotti setting is a truly shattering work.
Ashkenazy also brought depth of meaning to the bleak, stark piano lines,
revelling in the piano outburst of ‘Creativity’. It is easy to see why
this was originally scheduled as the grand finale to the concert.
Rodion Shchedrin (born 1932) was present for the first
UK performance of My Age, My Wild Beast, a vocal cycle on words
by Osip Mandelstam for tenor, story-teller and piano, written in 2002.
Tenor Ilya Levinsky was due to be soloist, but cancelled due to a throat
infection, leaving Mark Tucker to fill in at the last moment. My
Age, My Wild Beast is dedicated to Vladimir Ashkenazy and is written
for two soloists, a tenor soloist who takes the role of Osip Mandelstam
and a reciter (Harriet Walter in this performance) who takes the part
of Anna Akhmatova.
There was some scene-setting on stage: the Storyteller
was positioned in an armchair, with side table and cosy sidelight. Walter
appeared in period dress, reciting with Jackanory-like clarity the story
of Osip Mandelstam, quoting from Anna Akhmatova’s ‘Diaries’along the
Shchedrin makes many demands on his interpreters, most
of which were expertly realised here. Occasionally, Tucker sounded too
‘English’, too clean, but he handled the cruelly-high passages with
confidence. Ashkenazy seemed in his element, lending much meaning to
the spare textures.
A remarkable evening.