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S & H Concert Review

Borodin, Prokofiev, Debussy Arcadi Volodos (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy, Thursday, February 19th, 2004 (CC)


It was Arcadi Volodos who provided the clear highlight of this concert. Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto is not for the faint of heart (it boasts a distinctly limited playership), mainly because of the almost impossibly long cadenza in the first movement. But it includes moments of playfulness along with powerhouse pyrotechnics and it is a tribute to all concerned that these came across fully characterised.

There was no sense whatsoever of Volodos playing himself in –from the very start, the left-hand came projected perfectly with just the right amount of pedal while the right hand was tellingly inflected. The effect, interestingly, was to invoke the world of the Eighth Piano Sonata thirty years before its time – a very dark, forbidding world indeed. If the return of the initial theme was perfectly managed, the moments of magic so far were as nothing to the magnificence of that (in)famous cadenza. It was not the technical feats that were the really important thing here (jaw-droppingly impressive though they were) rather it was the sense of vastness that Volodos created. There was an almost visceral sense of embarking on a journey as he launched into this encyclopaedia of challenges – amazingly, no matter what miracles his fingers achieved, Volodos remained perfectly still. He seemed to adore the climax, though, the welters of notes seeming the most natural, yet the most exciting, thing in the world.

The moto perpetuo second movement is just the sort of thing Volodos thrives on. Yet it was in the Intermezzo third movement that piano and orchestra were as one. This is archetypal Prokofiev. Brass chords were ominous, violins spiky. Volodos’ chords had a perfect edge to them, while his dynamic control of his instrument was absolute. The opening to the finale can easily sound sentimental, but here it carried just the right aura of nostalgia without undue indulgence. Staccato exchanges between soloist and orchestra were exuberant. Surely this performance must be a, if not the, highlight of the present season …

Borodin opened proceedings – the Overture to Prince Igor (a work with much input from Glazunov). It was a mixed account, with a very English (ie markedly un-Russian) clarinet eschewing anything remotely sensual and a horn solo that started beautifully but then threatened to teeter out of control. True, Ashkenazy gave some sections the space they needed to breathe, but is equally true that other parts could have flowered more. The Philharmonia on auto-pilot remains an impressive beast, but it is the knowledge that they can give more of themselves that remains unsettling.

I’m not entirely sure Ashkenazy and Debussy make good bed-fellows, perhaps an unfortunate turn of phrase given the predominant eroticism of that seminal work, the ‘Poème dansé’ Jeux. Despite some wonderful playing (the wind chords at the start were so beautiful), atmosphere, so vital in this elusive work, was thin on the ground. Textures remained resolutely un-fragrant. Much rehearsal time had gone into the work’s technical difficulties, but its essence was missing (one still marvelled at Debussy’s forward-looking imagination, though!)

Jeux gave a good pointer as to what to expect from Ashkenazy’s La mer. The first movement (‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’) presented well-defined textures, but it was all far too literal, leaving the climax to be loud but insubstantial of meaning. ‘Jeux de vagues’ was more successful than Jeux and even exuded a certain amount of grandeur; alas ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’ was generally low-voltage. Some sterling trumpet playing (Alistair Mackie) was not enough to offset the minuses of an interpretation that is clearly immature. In addition, Ashkenazy just looks so stiff when he conducts – small wonder the sense of flow was not all there. It is interesting that the Philharmonia’s ‘rivals’, the LSO, gave a far superior account of La mer under Sir John Eliot Gardiner in 2003 at the Barbican.

Colin Clarke

 

 

 

 


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