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.