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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major K.467 [30:15]
Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat major K.482 [36:19]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 in D minor Op.47 [44:21]
The Golden Age - Polka [2:24]
NHK Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano/conductor)
rec. live, Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Hall, 26 May 1975 (Mozart); Concertgebouw, Brugge, Belgium, 10 June 2004 (Shostakovich)
KING INTERNATIONAL KKC 2058/9 [64:59 + 46:57]

This ‘twofer’ from King International profiles the NHK Symphony Orchestra in two concerts, featuring Mozart in Tokyo and Shostakovich in Belgium, the latter in what was presumably a tour. The conductor and soloist is Vladimir Ashkenazy. Three months after the Shostakovich concert he took up the position of Music Director of the NHK in September 2004. Another tour beckoned in Autumn 2005, the highlight of which was a televised concert from Vienna’s Musikverein, which marked the orchestra’s debut in this renowned establishment. Since then there have been several recordings on the Exton Label of Ravel, and Beethoven and Tchaikovsky Symphonies. Listening to the performances here, it is evident that there is a profound rapport and respect between Ashkenazy and the Tokyo players.
 
Of the two piano concertos performed here, the C major K.467 is the most well known. Performed and recorded many times, the slow movement was featured in the 1967 Swedish Film ‘Elvira Madigan’. It has been accorded this title in some quarters, though personally I dislike the association. In comparison, the K482 has taken something of a backseat. I do not know why this is so, I find it a much more interesting and melodious work. It was one of a handful of Mozart Piano Concertos that the distinguished Edwin Fischer played. Apart from a studio recording, there are two live performances of the work documented. There is also a performance by Rudolf Serkin at the Perpignan Festival with Casals in 1951, in what many consider one of its finest airings.
 
Ashkenazy’s take on the Mozart Piano Concertos has always been high on my list. The grace and charm found in the Decca recordings with the Philharmonia are also palpable here. Again, Ashkenazy doubles as both conductor and soloist here. These are masterly interpretations, where pacing, dynamics and balance are second to none. Upon subsequent hearings they continue to sound fresh and spontaneous. Embellishments, a practice sanctioned by Mozart, are tastefully executed. Slow movements have a pellucid simplicity and are suffused with lyrical beauty. The finales sparkle. The E flat Concerto K.482 is the first concerto in which Mozart includes clarinets. In fact, the woodwinds play a very special role in this work. Ashkenazy inspires the players, who imbue the music with rich woodwind colours and textures. He shows himself to be the consummate musician par excellence.
 
The ubiquitous Shostakovich Fifth comes from 2004. It is most certainly the best known and most popular of his symphonies. Ashkenazy and the NHK give a convincing and illuminating performance, which traverses the full gamut of emotions. Ensemble is sound, in what is clearly very well rehearsed. Everything is finely sculpted and well-fashioned. I would highlight the compelling opening dramatic gestures of the first movement, and the flute’s lyrical passage at 12:08. The second movement violin solo is teasing and flirtatious, complemented by a crisp and incisive harp and pizzicato accompaniment. In the third movement, Ashkenazy draws out the long line of the elegiac melody, with the NHK players responding with luscious string sound. The finale concludes with restless momentum. The ending is profoundly electrifying. I have always felt that Russian conductors do this work very well. I am thinking of the likes of Mravinsky and Svetlanov; Ashkenazy is no exception.
 
Given as an encore, the Polka from the ballet ‘The Golden Age’ is a delight, showcasing especially the brass, woodwinds and percussion sections. 

The piano sound in the Mozart rings out with bell-like clarity. Orchestral sound throughout is clear and well-balanced. Audience noise is negligible. Applause is retained, which is a bonus for me, but I realise is not to everyone’s taste. Liner-notes are in Japanese only.
 
All in all, another treasure from the NHK archives.
 
Stephen Greenbank

Masterwork Index: Mozart concerto 21 ~~ Concerto 22 ~~ Shostakovich Symphony 5