Ashkenazy and the National Symphony Orchestra in Walton and Shostakovich


Walton, Shostakovich: National Symphony Orchestra, Steven Isserlis (cello) Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor) Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington, 16.6.2011 (RRR)

Walton: Portsmouth Point Overture, Cello Concerto
Shostakovich: Symphony No.10

Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra gave guest conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy everything he asked for in William Walton and Dimitri Shostakovich. He should have asked for more. The NSO excelled in everything it did, but Ashkenazy cut off some of the expressive potential of the evening by not aiming for a true orchestral pianissimo where and when it seemed called for. I have heard true pianissimo from the NSO this season under music director conductor Christoph Eschenbach—so I assume this was Ashkenazy’s preference, not orchestra-unwillingness.

available at Amazon
D.SCH, Symphony No.10,
H.v.K / BPh (1982)
available at Amazon
D.SCH & W.Walton, Cello Concertos,
J.Walton / A.Briger / Philharmonia

This was no deficit in Walton’s youthful jeu d‘espirt, the Portsmouth Point Overture, which was played with élan and the requisite rhythmic sharpness. It was a fun, boisterous romp. Ashkenazy’s affinity for Romantic music—shown early on in his conducting career with his excellent set of the Sibelius symphonies, or the more recent recording of Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony—was evident in his treatment of the Walton Cello Concerto. Cellist Steven Isserlis began by giving an annoying pep talk about the Walton piece (please, just show us; don’t tell us), played by the NSO for the first time, but went on to deliver a very finely nuanced and affecting performance. Isserlis’ playing was (visually) passionate and fully engaged. The orchestral accompaniment was brilliant but could have shimmered with more delicacy. Ashkenazy’s lack of pianissimo meant that Isserlis—not endowed with a particularly large sound to begin with—was swamped in a few places, creating a sound imbalance between the cello and orchestra. In the moving finale, at least and at last, they melded perfectly.

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony should begin with the strings sounding as if they are emerging from a mist. Karajan perfectly captured this effect in his 1982 recorded performance with the Berlin Philharmonic. Once again, an opportunity for an ear-challenging, imagination-stimulating pianissimo was missed. But if there was an element of desperation missing from the affair, Ashkenazy still built the first, very long movement convincingly. Like the first movement of the Eighth Symphony, this is almost as long as the rest of the symphony. Ashkenazy was not afraid to let the music breathe in the latter part of this movement in a way that was very affecting, which made up for not quite reaching the cataclysmic heights at its climax (though coming very near). The string backbone of the piece, with its wonderful fugues, was right in place with the NSO players; the second movement was powerful, not manically oppressive. And the solo horn call in the third movement was performed simply magnificently. Catching the strings’ ebb and flow, Ashkenazy made the first part of the last movement sound as if it were a Sibelian tone poem, an impression abetted by the exquisite clarinet and flute playing floating above the brooding strings—“The Swan of Moscow”? There is music of real beauty in this symphony and Ashkenazy was communing with it in a way that made me notice things that I had missed before. My admiration, indeed affection, for this work is greater thanks to this performance.

Robert R. Reilly

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