Ashkenazy Conducts Russian Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prokofiev, Shostakovich: Nobuyuki Tsujii (piano), Sergey Alexashkin (bass), Philharmonia Voices & Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (Conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 24.5.2012 (CC) 

Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Op. 26
Shostakovich Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor, Op. 113, “Babi Yar”

Nobuyuki Tsujii is a remarkable pianist. Blind since birth, he enjoyed success in the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, a win that effectively launched his international career. He is certainly not the first blind pianist (Bernard d’Ascoli springs to mind), but that hardly diminished his achievement. Ashkenazy was an attentive accompanist (there were a few tattered corners, it is true, particularly the semiquaver passage in the first movement before the return of the first allegro theme). A major Prokofiev interpreter – who has of course recorded this concerto what seems an age ago now – Ashkenazy ensured a remarkably sweet string sound for the opening Andante. Tsujii’s dry delivery and very idiomatic staccato was a joy, as was his simply gorgeous touch in pianissimo. Throughout, the pianist’s awareness of voice-leading was illuminating. The central movement (a Theme and Variations) found Tsujii playing with great character; his way with the acciaccaturas of the finale was also most attractive, as was his staccato music-box passage in the same movement. The audience loved him, and so they should. We even got a brief, but beautifully executed encore in the shape of Rachmaninov’s G sharp minor Prelude, Op. 32/13.

Instead of having the texts and translations for Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony printed in the programme we had supertitles, enabling the audience to enjoy what’s going without having their heads buried in the booklet. The experienced Alexashkin was soloist (Alex Russell reviewed a performance of “Babi Yar” featuring Alexashkin in this same venue back in 2004 for this site), and the singer’s knowledge of the piece was obvious in his authoritative delivery. Alexashkin’s voice is not one of the deep Russian school; rather it is emotive and flexible. His voice was superbly focused at first though there were some signs of strain later on, starting in the fourth movement. However, the gentlemen of the Philharmonia Voices almost stole the show. They captured the harrowing nature of Shostakovich’s symphonic statement extremely well.

Ashkenazy conducted well, but there was never a feeling of deep resonance with the score here. It was a pity that the music lost dramatic impetus at the coming of ‘Spring’ (first movement), but he almost compensated for it with a superbly angular ‘Humour‘ (second movement), a message of hope that speaks of the impossibility of imprisoning humour. I say “almost” because, perhaps, this movement could have been that bit more unbuttoned and abandoned.

Of individual orchestral contributions, it is the solo tuba of Peter Smith that deserves special mention. The long lines of the slow third movement (‘In the store’) were simply harrowing. The pair of flutes that provide the shaft of hope in at the opening of the final movement, ‘A Career’ also stood out.

Not quite the event one had hoped for, therefore, but plenty of memorable moments.

Colin Clarke