Ashkenazy with the Southbank Sinfonia

Elgar, Schumann and Vaughan Williams: Raphael Wallfisch (cello), Sacconi Quartet – Ben Hancox, Hannah Dawson (violins), Robin Ashwell (viola), Cara Berridge (cello) Southbank Sinfonia, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 29.3.2011 (BBr)

Elgar: Introduction and Allegro, op.47 (1905)
Schumann: Cello Concerto in A minor, OP.129 (1850)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.5 in D (1938/1943)

This is the third concert conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy I have attended within the past year and yet again a fine orchestra has not shown itself to best effect because of uninspiring interpretations and weak leadership. As a pianist Ashkenazy has few peers, but as a conductor, for me, he lacks the very strengths that, as a pianist, he displays in every note he plays.
Elgar’s great Introduction and Allegro was given with the Sacconi Quartet – one of the best of the younger quartets working at the moment – but even their participation failed to ignite this performance. The fault must be laid at the conductor’s door for Ashkenazy didn’t seem fully to understand where the music was going. The Introduction was uneventful, and once the allegro started Ashkenazy put his foot on the accelerator at the point where the quartet starts its chatter in semiquavers. This should be in the same tempo as what has preceded it and here it felt rushed – the same thing happened in the recapitulation. The fugue started too quickly and Ashkenazy failed to increase the tempo when it was required, so rather than a build up of excitement things progressed without the necessary incident. Also, at the end of the fugue there is a short passage for the solo cello which leads back into the allegro, but here it was given as an end to a section, rather than as a continuation. At the end the Welsh tune was given in its full glory but without passion.
Raphael Wallfisch played the Schumann Concertoas if it was a better, and more important, work than it actually is, and I was convinced of its qualities, such was our soloist’s advocacy. The orchestration isn’t Schumann’s best and there was nothing Ashkenazy or the orchestra could do to enliven it. The duet between soloist and principal cello, in the slow movement, was perfectly achieved.
Vaughan Williams’s FifthSymphony is one of the greatest symphonies of the twentieth century, and not just by an Englishman. Much of the music is of an heightened emotional state and it needs very careful handling to make it speak and reveal its many secrets. As with his performance of the Elgar, I felt a lack of control and purpose in Ashkenazy’s interpretation: he didn’t really understand his destination before he started his journey. Also, as with the Elgar, the music was given as a series of separate events rather than as a continuously developing whole. Climaxes were poorly built, always arriving too quickly rather than growing out of the texture, and the sense of awe and wonder, which fill this work, was totally missing. Barbirolli, Tod Handley and Bryden Thomson all had the measure of this work, and I had the pleasure of hearing them all in this work in live performance; Ashkenazy has a long way to go to reach the heights of their interpretations.


Bob Briggs