Vladimir Ashkenazy Conducts the Philharmonia – With Mixed Results

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dukas, Ravel, Falla, and Debussy: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 11.12.2011 (MB)

Dukas: L’apprenti sorcier
: Piano Concerto in G major
: Noches en los jardines de España
: La mer

All too often, one witnesses a thoughtless reflex reaction directed toward pianists-turned-conductors. Maurizio Pollini suffered considerable hostility on beginning to conduct; the experience appears to have put him off for good, save for directing Mozart concertos from the piano. One sometimes still hears people say they wish that Daniel Barenboim would concentrate upon the piano, apparently oblivious to how much his conducting has enriched his performances at the keyboard, and vice versa. Vladimir Ashkenazy presents a more difficult case: clearly he is not a bad conductor, as some instrumentalists or singers have proved, but it would be difficult to argue that he has enjoyed similar success in that role as he did as a pianist. One can imagine, though, how much a pianist might value having him as a concerto ‘accompanist’, knowing so many works as a pianist himself. Ashkenazy presents such a genial, collegiate personality on the stage that one cannot help but wish him well; however, my experience on this occasion, as in the past, turned out to be mixed.

Dukas’s scherzo, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, received a disappointing performance. Following slight rhythmic hesitancy at the opening – on Ashkenazy’s part, rather than the Philharmonia’s – the conductor seemed to over-compensate, imparting thereafter a frankly brutal drive, which never relented. The mechanical entirely supplanted the fantastical; a smile was nowhere in evidence.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet then joined the orchestra for two works, the first being Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto. The elegant ease with which Bavouzet despatched the opening piano flourishes was something to savour. Throughout the first movement he remained alert to Ravel’s twists and turns – and, crucially, to their motivations. Ashkenazy’s handling of the orchestral music was less sure: there were a few minor imprecisions. More seriously, he was often too much the mere ‘accompanist’, following but never really leading. There was nevertheless a great deal to enjoy in the bluesy solos so evidently relished by various Philharmonia principals. The lengthy opening piano solo in the slow movement was not just exquisitely shaped but intriguingly alert to darker undercurrents, Bavouzet bringing the mood a little closer to that of the Left Hand Piano Concerto than is generally the case. Here, and later on, his playing was full of subtle shading and phrasing. Again, there was some very fine woodwind playing, not least from Jill Crowther on English horn. The finale I found more problematic. It received a brisk, no-nonsense reading that rather lacked charm: Bavouzet’s delivery, followed by Ashkenazy’s, seemed at times closer to Prokofiev than to Ravel in its muscular approach. There were no such problems, however, with his encore, a darkly atmospheric account of Debussy’s ‘La puerta del Vino’ from the second book of Préludes. Rhythmic insistence was somehow combined with subtle and supple variation.

That ‘Spanish’ piece also offered a good link to the two pieces in the second half: Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and Debussy’s own La mer. Ashkenazy’s conducting seemed much sharper in the Falla: full of energy and with a considerably broader colouristic range, those two facets well integrated. Indeed, both he and Bavouzet moved convincingly between languor and biting precision in the first movement, ‘En el Generalife’. The Philharmonia’s cello section was on especially fine form, but all the strings, indeed all the orchestra, contributed to a tremendous climax. The second movement, ‘Danza lejana’, was equally well judged: atmospheric, yet not at the cost of melodic and rhythmic definition. There was a true sense of dialogue now between piano and orchestra, similarly in the final movement, ‘En los jardines de la Sierra de Córdoba’, though occasionally I wondered whether it was a touch on the driven side. I am not sure that the movement presents Falla at his most distinguished, but it received a fine performance nonetheless.

La mer had much to offer too. The outer movements received for the most part eminently musicianly readings, though I have heard saltier accounts. No matter: there were some beautifully hushed moments and Ashkenazy conveyed an impressive degree of quasi-symphonic logic throughout, which, if anything became more pronounced during the course of the first movement. I do not recall a performance in which the presence of Franck has been so pronounced. Ashkenazy reinstated the brass fanfares at the conclusion of ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’. (I approve, though some do not.) ‘Jeux de vagues’ offered glitter but purpose too, precision but not too much, its mystery retained. What I missed, and this registered most strongly in the final movement, was a sense of Debussy’s modernity. This was, broadly speaking, Debussy emerging from the nineteenth century – Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Borodin all sprang to mind – rather than the progenitor of Messiaen and Boulez. There is room for both approaches, of course, and doubtless for others too, though the final climax proved surprisingly brash. A little more refinement there would not have gone amiss.

Mark Berry