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Sibelius, Grieg, Rachmaninov: Nikolai Lugansky (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra; Vladimir Ashkenazy. Colston Hall, Bristol 17.10.2010 (JQ)


Jean Sibelius: Karelia Suite

Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16

Sergei Rachmaninov: Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op. 27


In my experience it’s somewhat unusual for professional symphony concerts to take place on a Sunday afternoon, at least outside London. I don’t know if this was an experiment on the part of the management of the Colston Hall but it seems to me there’s a strong case for putting on concerts in the afternoon at weekends;  not least for the benefit of those who may find it difficult to travel at night or be nervous about so doing. Whether it was due to the convenience of the timing or the attractiveness of the programme I don’t know, but there was a large and appreciative audience for this concert.

Unfortunately, however, the audience was the most bronchial that I can remember in a very long time. Throughout the entire concert, and especially in the first half, it seemed we couldn’t get through thirty seconds without someone emitting a loud cough. Of course, there are bound to be times when someone is obliged to cough but I cannot believe that the majority of the miscreants could not have stifled their coughs in some way. As if to prove that it could be done, an elderly gentleman seated in the row in front of me coughed at the end of the slow movement of the concerto. However, I could see quite clearly that he made an effort both to wait until the music had ended and to stifle the cough. The result was a very slight noise from a polite, considerate concertgoer, which was probably unnoticed by most of those seated around him. Would that others had been equally considerate for at times I felt as if I was attending a concert in a sanatorium.

Happily, that’s about the only negative point that will appear in this notice for the concert itself was a very high quality event. On the evidence of what I saw I refuse to believe that Vladimir Ashkenazy celebrated his seventy-third birthday this summer. On the platform he was energetic and energised and the music making that he drew from the Philharmonia, whose Conductor Laureate he is, was full of the same vitality that Ashkenazy himself possesses.

At the very start of his recording career as a conductor, thirty years or more ago, I recall that he set down a well-received cycle of the Sibelius symphonies with the Philharmonia so it was good to find him back with the music of the Finnish master at the start of this programme. In a very good performance I enjoyed especially the Ballade in which the playing of the woodwind section and the full-toned strings was very pleasing. Towards the end of this movement, which was expertly shaped by Ashkenazy, there was a most poetic rendition of the cor anglais solo by Jill Crowther. The outer movements were distinguished by firm rhythmic control on the part of the conductor, who was clearly inside the spirit of the music.

For Grieg’s Piano Concerto Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia were joined by the Russian virtuoso, Nikolai Lugansky (b. 1972), a sometime pupil of the great Tatiana Nikolayeva, I believe. It must have been an interesting experience for Lugansky to perform this staple of the concerto repertoire with a distinguished pianist as conductor. Since Ashkenazy must have played the work on countless occasions in the past he probably knows the score from the inside more than almost any other conductor on the circuit. I felt throughout the performance that he was fully in accord with his soloist and he proved himself to be a fine and alert accompanist. He was alert in one other respect too. Midway through the first movement he disappeared from view behind the piano. When he reappeared a few seconds later it was evident that he’d stepped down from the podium to pick up something dropped onto the floor either by him or by one of the first desk players in the second violins. In the meantime the performance continued, quite literally without missing a beat!

To my surprise I realised that it had been quite some time since I’d heard this work. Perhaps that’s why it sounded so fresh or perhaps that was due to the quality of the performance: probably a mixture of the two, I suspect. Lugansky impressed me very much. His tone was especially pleasing. It had depth and fullness, especially at the bass end of the keyboard. His technique was superb and though he was in full command of the bravura passages it was the unforced lyricism and poetry that he brought to the many reflective stretches of music that gave particular pleasure. Thus, the first movement cadenza began with ruminative delicacy but eventually the playing rose to powerful heights. When Ashkenazy began the second movement by drawing out lovingly the orchestral introduction Lugansky was fully in tune with this approach. In this movement in particular the range of dynamic contrast displayed both by the soloist and the orchestra was very pleasing. The finale was powerful and energetic at the start and when the lovely second subject appeared, beautifully articulated by the principal flautist, Ashkenazy let it unfold expansively but without artifice. Overall, this was a fresh and highly enjoyable performance of the concerto and the performers fully deserved the warm reception they received from the audience.

Rachmaninov is another composer with whose music Ashkenazy made an early mark as a conductor in the recording studio. Recently he’s revisited Rachmaninov’s orchestral music on CD, this time with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, of which he became Principal Conductor last year. It so happens that over the last few weeks I’ve been preparing a review of these discs for MusicWeb International and, as the set includes a very fine version of the Second Symphony, my expectations were high coming into this concert. In the event those expectations were not just met; they were triumphantly exceeded.

Let’s not beat about the bush. This was a magnificent interpretation of the symphony, superbly realised by the Philharmonia. In the first half of the concert, especially in the Grieg, Ashkenazy had shown a penchant for encouraging long, expressive phrasing. This trait in his conducting now came even more into its own in this performance of the symphony. I’m sure that Ashkenazy’s long experience as a distinguished performer of Rachmaninov’s piano music must have had a beneficial influence on his interpretation of the symphony. Above all, he seemed to have an instinctive command of rubato. Time and again the players were encouraged to deliver Rachmaninov’s long, yearning phrases with just the right amount of ‘give’ – and with the ‘give’ placed at just the right place, the most natural place, in the phrase.

Two aspects of the orchestral layout caught my eye. The double basses were placed in a row right at the very back of the orchestra and high up on the platform risers so that they were above everyone else. In fact, they were where one might have expected the percussion to be while the percussion were tucked away behind the cello section, where the basses are usually to be found. I don’t know if this was a deliberate choice by Ashkenazy or one forced on him by the available space on the platform but it seemed to me to work very well, allowing the string bass line to be projected firmly and positively, which is highly beneficial in this score. The horns were also seated quite high up, towards the back of the orchestra and on the conductor’s left. For the most part I thought this worked very well and the many ripe passages for the horns rang out tellingly. However, there were several times when quiet, low-lying horn parts, which are surely there just to fill out the texture, were a bit too prominent. But this was a very minor quibble.

Only the word “superb” will do justice to the quality of the orchestral playing. The score abounds in long, richly romantic string passages and without exception these were delivered with the most glorious, deep tone by the Philharmonia. The brass and woodwind sections were not to be outdone and offered playing of equal distinction – and a special mention must be made of Mark van de Wiel’s beautifully nuanced rendition of the celebrated clarinet solo in the gorgeous third movement.

Ashkenazy was masterly in his direction. Clearly, this is music that he feels in his bones and he communicated his love of it in a deeply-felt and powerful interpretation. But, though I’ve stressed the romantic fervour of the performance I mustn’t give the impression that this was a “lush” rendition. Even in the most expansive sections the music making had real backbone and, in the quicker passages, urgency, genuine fire and bite. In summary, it was a wonderful and wholly convincing performance, which rightly drew an ovation at the end.

Years ago this symphony used to be performed with cuts. Happily that practice ceased years ago and Rachmaninov’s score was recognised as a great, late flowering of Russian romanticism. This towering performance by Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia revealed the score in all its glory.

John Quinn


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