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S & H Concert Review

Scarlatti arr. Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, Yefim Bronfman (pf), Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 29th September 2003 (CT)


One could be forgiven for thinking of this as an all-Russian programme, for arguably there is more Shostakovich than Scarlatti in the two brief arrangements for wind that opened this concert. Delightful though they certainly are, not to mention comparative rarities for they only turned up amongst the composer’s personal papers after his death and were never published during his lifetime. The harpsichord pieces in question are the Pastorale L413 and Capriccio L375. Although Stravinsky’s Pergolesi orchestrations in Pulcinella have been suggested as the influence (I personally do not believe this to be the case) the scoring is Shostakovich through and through, particularly in the Capriccio where it is the Jazz Suites and Tahiti Trot that come vividly to mind.

Scored for woodwind alone, the delicate Pastorale received equally delicate treatment from the players of The Philharmonia, finely pointed and conducted with characteristic precision and clarity by Ashkenazy. Amusingly jazzed up with muted glissandi on the trombone and occasional splashes from the trumpet, the Capriccio was again a delight, the tongue in cheek wit concealing the composer’s deft sense of timing and unerring feeling for instrumental colour.

Anyone who has seen Yefim Bronfman will know him to be a giant of a man, ungainly and awkward in his movement yet with a formidable technique and physical power at the keyboard that seems to match his stature perfectly. I very clearly remember hearing him storming his way through a Bartok concerto at the Proms some years ago and thinking how the composer would have appreciated Bronfman’s treatment of the piano very much as a percussion instrument, an assertion that Bartok was always keen to point out. Moments of physical power there certainly are in Tchaikovsky’s effervescent Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat, but in comparison to Bartok it is a very different animal indeed. Bronfman gave a reading that was stamped with "no nonsense" from the opening bars, solid, robust and (I hesitate to use the word, but will) masculine. Yet for all the bravura of the outer movements, the glistening, crystal-clear passagework and the sheer presence of the playing, it was the central Andantino semplice that stayed in my mind after the performance. The key word here is "semplice" for Bronfman delivered a simple, sentimentally restrained and ultimately moving account. Again, the finger work in the central prestissimo was effortless, even if it may not have been quite the most graceful passage of the movement, but the refrain at the close was captured truly beautifully. The Philharmonia, guided sensitively by Ashkenazy provided highly competent accompaniment with a string sound that whilst not the warmest, was certainly silky smooth and marred only by Christopher Warren-Green’s over the top stage antics. One could not help wondering what Ashkenazy the pianist made of it all.

In Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony there was no doubt whatsoever that Ashkenazy knew exactly where he wanted the music to go. His clear headed sense of purpose was stamped on the performance from the opening bars and although there may have been the slightest lapses in tension during the opening movement the searing climax at its heart was wrought with a magnificent intensity, the brass on fine form. Not for the first time the precision, verging on the mechanical at times, of Ashkenazy’s direction gave the Scherzo an almost brittle like quality that served to underline the irony at the heart of the composer’s inspiration and gave the remarkable sense of stillness that inhabited passages of the ensuing Lento an atmosphere of genuine profundity. Above all though it was Ashkenazy’s cumulative grasp of the work’s architecture that impressed, sustained right to the close in an epic final movement and an overall performance of unrelenting purpose and power.

Christopher Thomas.



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