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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


The Philharmonia Orchestra in Athens: Rachmaninov Festival, Soloists, Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Megaron, Athens, 7th and 8th December 2004 (ARi)

Sergei Rachmaninov:
The Rock, Op. 7
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D minor, No. 3, Op. 30
Symphony in E minor, No. 2, Op. 27

Garrick Ohlsson (pianist), 7th December 2004

The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 43
Symphony in A minor, No. 3, Op. 44
bis: Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 1

Vassilis Tsambropoulos (pianist), 8th December 2004


The Philharmonia Orchestra of London is a regular visitor to Athens' Concert Hall "Megaron" as well as the Athens Festival, which takes place every summer in the ancient "Herodeion" theatre below the Acropolis. The Athens audience are always very responsive and adore this orchestra's marvellous playing, as well as its "conservative" programs. While I enjoy its technical perfection and beauty of sound, I have never been convinced by Vladimir Ashkenazy's ability to lead them in an interesting performance. But, this first concert changed that (initial planning was for a four-day Rachmaninov Festival, but the budget did not finally allow the fourth concert to take place).

The opening work was one of Rachmaninov's first mature creations, "The Rock", composed in 1893 and first performed in Moscow in 1894 together with the world premiere of his first piano concerto. Rachmaninov's main inspiration was Chekhov's "Na Puti" which starts with a quote from Lermontov's poem "The Rock". It is a programmatic work, narrating an old man's confessions to a young girl regarding his life, where all his fears and inner thoughts emerge.

Besides some limited experiences on record, I have never heard this work in concert - and I enjoyed it more than I had expected. The work's impressionistic colours were superbly played by the orchestra; low brass nicely outlined the old man's character and woodwinds, together with the harp, presented the young girl's response. After an impressive and masterly shaped full orchestral crescendo, the work faded slowly and steadily to the final notes of the old man's farewell to the young girl.

The evening's Warhorse was Rachmaninov's Third piano concerto, with the physically impressive Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. Ohlsson stated with epic simplicity the opening notes of the first movement and his large sound magnificently filled the hall; the orchestra took over the opening theme quickly, but softly and mysteriously too. The second theme appeared quite unsentimental and lacked contrast, but was convincing, and orchestra and piano blended well in the climax. Ohlsson has an astonishing technique which supported him perfectly in the large cadenza (he played the first version). Again, what a large sound he has (as opposed to the thin sonorities that Andsnes produced some weeks ago in Rachmaninov's Second Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson-Thomas). The orchestra's marvellous soloists (flute, oboe, clarinet and horn), together with Ohlsson's discrete presence, lead to the re-exposition and to the movement's final fading.

Almost without a break, came the opening theme of the Intermezzo. Some might prefer a more romantic treatment, but not Ashkenazy. He was straight and clear in his intentions from beginning to end. In the piu vivo section there was a masterful treatment by orchestra, pianist and conductor. The theme was majestically presented. In the finale Ashkenazy cared more about maintaining the "big line" of the movement stating, as previously, the work’s romantic themes in an almost discrete manner, something which could easily be qualified as "cold". The climax was nicely phrased and Ohlsson demonstrated his technique in the most demanding variations of the middle "scherzando" section. The final climax was satisfying both technically (amazing blending of piano and orchestra) and aesthetically. This was a fresh view of this masterpiece; an epic C-sharp minor prelude (Op. 3, No. 2) from Ohlsson, sounding fresher than ever, acted as an encore.

The Allegro Moderato section of the Second symphony's first movement prepared us for the excellent performance we were about to hear (the Largo section having set the mood nicely). Violins chanted their theme clearly, but the romantic spirit flowed with some restraint (tempi being slightly on the fast side). Impressive woodwinds shared the second theme with luxurious and fleshy strings and led us to the development section with the first violinist demonstrating his - more than welcomed - sensitivity. Both themes were repeated unaltered from their initial appearance, when one would have preferred more contrasting effects.

The horns really sang the opening theme of the second movement (Allegro molto). (It is becoming rarer to experience such beautiful playing and interpretation from the orchestra’s horn sections, at least in Athens.) The explosion of brass and cymbals, as well as the perfectly articulated fugal writing in the whole movement, stood out.

The opening theme of the third movement appeared exhilarating after the Scherzo, with the phrasing unbelievably efficient and Ashkenazy deeply involved; the second theme was superbly played by the clarinettist: he narrated his part in a touching manner (Ashkenazy offered this solo to his son Dimitrij in his performance of the work with the "Sinfonieorchester des Musikalischen Sommers Ostfriesland" in August 2004 in Essen, to be broadcast next January by the NDR). Oboes, together with strings, quoted the third theme, but the strings failed to convey a satisfactory pulse to sustain the drama leading to the climax. Nevertheless nobody can complain about the beauty of the sound produced ("Megaron" has an excellent acoustic for large orchestras ensembles). Subsequent statements by the violins, cor anglais, flute and clarinet led to the rest of the movement finishing on a lyrical high note that conquered the hall. The final movement was finely executed, with Ashkenazy letting the players interpret more freely than in the previous ones. A joyous mood was outlined, with everything ending in a cerebral, but euphoric, way.

There was a feeling that the orchestra enjoyed working with Ashkenazy, not exactly what we encountered in the recent Bruckner Fourth with the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle in May 2004.

The second concert of Philharmonia's Rachmaninov cycle attracted less people, with a third of the seats in the hall empty.

Rachmaninov's masterpiece "The Isle of the Dead" opened with atmospheric, dark sounds from the celli, which managed to set the sombre mood, together with muted strings and low phrases on the harp. Ashkenazy got a superbly balanced result as he did from the horn, oboe and full orchestra (always superb) that suggested the hymnal Dies Irae (a well known leitmotif in Rachmaninov's music). With the performance now having the necessary momentum to cover the first climax, the effect should have been spine-chilling. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen; or to be fair, it happened only partially. The following love-of-life theme should have been faster, more restless, so as to contrast with the Dies Irae motive which appears again; if the struggle between life and death was successfully managed, leading us to the final climax and the fading end, this performance never quite attained the "macabre" dimensions I have heard in some recordings of this work.

In the second work, the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini", Ashkenazy tried to provide good orchestral support but the pianist could not respond to the work's requirements. Especially after Ohlsson's performance the previous day, Tsambropoulos' playing can be summarized as musical but lacking force and involvement, in a work that should captivate an audience - and with such a composition, and with such an orchestra, this should have happened. Unfortunately, the blending of the soloist with the orchestra was insufficient since the orchestra had to back up more often than it should have, so as not to cover the piano, leaving us with a feeling of unfulfilment, even during the famous 18th variation. As often happens with native soloists, the audience offered a large ovation and Tsambropoulos responded with another Paganini variation (this time, I assume, composed by himself; Tsambropoulos is very active as a jazz improviser).

Rachmaninov's Third symphony is rarely performed in Greece and Mr. Ashkenazy and his Orchestra offered us a fine performance. After the Lento introduction, the main theme of the first movement sounded rushed (certainly not in the same spirit as the composer's recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra) but the beautiful Slavic themes were presented stylishly, giving the hall the chance to appreciate not only the players' abilities but, also, the orchestra's extremely accurate response to the numerous tempo and mood changes imposed by the composer (and maestro). The Adagio sections of the second movement were luxuriously played by the first violinist and the velvety strings, with expressive solos from the flute and other woodwinds, and a marvellous harp accompaniment. The brass, just before the short climactic passage, negotiated a perfect dialogue with the strings: a dream moment, indeed. The martial mood of the Scherzo, within the second movement, was superbly underlined by the woodwind statements, and with the re-appearance of the Adagio, a fine dialogue between the strings and the woodwinds were there for us to savour. The third movement never totally worked, lacking the inspiration we are used to in Rachmaninov's recording. Nevertheless, Ashkenazy and his players gave their best so as to achieve a coherent and colourful Finale. As an encore, the heavenly orchestrated Vocalise, with lovely playing from the solo clarinet and strings, ended the concert.

Alexandros Rigas



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