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Rachmaninov: Garrick Ohlsson (piano) Sydney Symphony, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor), Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, Sydney, 16.11.2007 (TP)

Rachmaninov: Vocalise, Piano Concerto No.3, Symphonic Dances

There could be no more fitting way for Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony to close their Rachmaninov festival than with a performance of the Russian composer's Symphonic Dances.  This symphony in all but name was Rachmaninov's final orchestral work.  Its wild finale can be seen as his valedictory statement, interweaving as it does the theme of the Dies Irae with the celebratory theme to which Rachmaninov set the words “Blessed art thou O Lord” in his Vespers.

Ashkenazy knows this music inside out and he laid it bare for the Sydney audience's appreciation in a performance of rhythmic verve.  The first movement had terrific drive and thrust, Ashkenazy seemingly taking the marking “Non allegro” to mean “Within a hair of being fast”.  There was delicacy here too, as the ghostly Sydney Symphony winds introduced the saxophone's “vocalise”, which was voiced by James Nightingale with rich tone and haunting melancholy.  To the nightmare ballroom of the second movement Ashkenazy brought elegance with a sinister edge.  The orchestra was light on its feet here.  Concertmaster Dene Olding's “Death's fiddler” passages, dripping vibrato, were especially malevolent.  In the finale, Ashkenazy whipped up a storm once more, now joyful, now terrifying, but always clarifying the textures of the score and revealing its detail.  He let the final gong stroke ring out, but just for an instant.

Earlier Garrick Ohlsson joined the orchestra for a controlled performance of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto.  Ohlsson's ursine build – a marked contrast with that of the diminutive maestro in the rostrum – may have roused expectations that we should expect a virtuoso mauling of the concerto.  Horowitz, after all, “swallowed it whole”.  Ohlsson, though, proved himself to be an artist of great sensitivity and emotional range.  He certainly had enough power in his fingers to make the keys ring out, but he held it in reserve until it was called for and impressed more with his ability to deploy a delicate pianissimo.  There was a luminous beauty to his first statements in the second movement in particular.  Ashkenazy kept a firm hand on the tiller throughout, never allowing the heavy orchestral writing – so much more dense than that deployed in the
Symphonic Dances – to bog down.  From the simple two note figure of the opening bars there was already a palpable tension in this performance, though Ashkenazy still managed to encouraged a rich singing tone from the strings.

The thunderous ovation that erupted at the conclusion of this performance demanded an encore, and Ohlsson obliged with a free and artlessly beautiful rendition of Rachmaninov's Prelude in G major, Op.23 no.4.

It was with similarly simple beauty that the concert began.  Ashkenazy and the orchestra opened this final programme with a subtle, silky voiceless
Vocalise, in which passion was latent rather than overflowing.  It was an apt choice, prefiguring if only in the gentle contours of the melody the “vocalise” given to the saxophone in the first of the Symphonic Dance.  Ashkenazy's Rachmaninov festival has been one of the year's most keenly anticipated events here in Sydney.  This concert did not disappoint.

Tim Perry

Postscript: All four concerts in Ashkenazy's Sydney Rachmaninov Festival – each featuring one of Rachmaninov's symphonic works and one of his concertante works for keyboard – were recorded for the Japanese record label, Octavia Records, for future release.


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