Ashkenazy and the OPO offer a triptych of Russian compositions


Nimrod Borenstein, Shostakovich and Rachmaninov: Natalia Lomeiko (violinist), Oxford Philharmonic /Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 9.12.2017. (CR)

Nimrod Borenstein If you will it, it is no dream Op.58
Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor Op.77
Rachmaninov Symphony No.1 in D minor Op.13

This programme, for which Vladimir Ashkenazy acted as the guest conductor of the Oxford Philharmonic, offered a triptych of Russian compositions travelling backwards in time through a complementary variety of differing musical styles and movements over the last 120 years or so.

Nimrod Borenstein explains that he finds structure essential in creating a composition, and in letting that – rather than emotion – dictate the form of If you will it, it is no dream (2012), he describes it as a Postmodern work. Certainly its basically tripartite pattern is strongly driven by its rhythms and seamlessly terraced sequence of melodies which are passed around the instruments of the orchestra (scored for the same forces as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5). At any rate, that was the exhilarating effect of Ashkenazy’s performance with the Oxford Philharmonic which charted the music’s ten-minute course confidently, from the scurrying, even galloping, first section, to the slow central passage heralded by a solo piccolo theme of a Shostakovich-like, forlorn character, before returning to the more dynamic material of the opening. Having given the premiere of the same composer’s Violin Concerto three years ago, and recently recorded these two works for a Chandos disc, the orchestra demonstrated their fluency with, and enjoyment of, the score. Furthermore, in using a more or less tonal musical language, Borenstein’s composition sounds reassuringly familiar in accent, perhaps, rather than abstract or rebarbative, and so the resulting performance gave pleasure, but also offered some surprise with its wittily sudden end.

Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No.1 (1947-8) is one of the great Modernist violin concertos, and perhaps no wonder seeing that it was written for David Oistrakh, who also advised the composer on some revisions, prior to its premiere. Natalia Lomeiko masterfully delivered the violin’s melodies without break, sustaining a mellow, introspective mood as required for the opening Nocturne, but also bringing character and presence to the music through her moderate use of vibrato. Together with the steadily held chords by the orchestra, the overall effect was a properly benumbed, trance-like meditation.

Neither the Scherzo second movement, nor the lively fourth movement unduly disrupted that atmosphere. Although they were performed in a vivacious manner, the Scherzo was playful and bouncy with its jagged, irregular interjections (first from the soloist then the orchestra) rather than viciously ironic or sarcastic, and orchestral textures were translucent in Ashkenazy’s hands. Similarly in the finale, Lomeiko’s playing remained pliant and buoyant, even despite creating a richer tone by digging deeper into her instrument’s strings as necessary for more vehement episodes. In between came the Passacaglia, announced portentously by the heaving cellos and blaring brass in the preliminary statement of the theme, but then tempered by the authoritative manner of Lomeiko’s performance as she took up the series of variations on the subject, even as she movingly made the violin sound as though weeping. Her long cadenza at the end of the movement was unrushed, taking its time to build tension, like that other great passacaglia or chaconne for solo violin, at the end of Bach’s second solo Partita, and then issuing in the greater energy of the finale. This was a considered and moving reading of the Concerto overall that unfolded its own logic, even if one might have missed more impulsive, perhaps violent, drama throughout.

Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.1 – a composition one time thought lost after its disastrous premiere – is a clear statement of musical Romanticism, over which the spirit of Tchaikovsky hovers. Ashkenazy’s performance was frequently emphatic and impassioned, not least in the very opening rising triplet figure (which becomes something of a leitmotiv for the work, developed and altered over the course of its four movements), and the bombastic military march after the finale’s introduction.

In the fugal section of the first movement, the strings were initially ragged, but they rallied for the remainder of the movement – particularly in the warm, oscillating figure of its coda – as well as in the glossy, silken textures of the subsequent movements. Similarly the brass made considerable impact, with their motifs in the first movement which prefigure the Dies Irae subject that Rachmaninov was often to use in later compositions; in their assertive contribution to the finale’s march; and additionally in the sinister muted trumpets following that, foreshadowing an aspect of Shostakovich’s style. It was a pity that the woodwind sounded diffident towards the end of the finale, and a horn melody was broken prior to this movement’s inconclusive climax, therefore undermining a little its questioning, anti-triumphal coda which makes this work a more interesting musical and emotional experience than its neglect in the concert hall would appear to warrant, or the admittedly uneven handling of the material up to that point. But in many other respects, this performance made a positive case for the Symphony, proving that it is more than a mere apprentice work for the more popular pair of symphonies which followed from the composer’s pen.

Curtis Rogers

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