Ashkenazy’s lovingly respectful way with Berlioz and Bruch

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Berlioz, Bruch: Alina Pogostkina (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra / Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 22.5.2012 (GPu)

Berlioz: Overture, Béatrice et Bénédict
: Violin Concerto No. 1
: Symphonie Fantastique

If a ‘great’ conductor is one who puts an individual stamp on everything he conducts so that nine times out of ten one can recognize his presence on a recording, then probably Vladimir Ashkenazy doesn’t qualify for the epithet. If a ‘great’ conductor takes many interpretative risks, not all of which come off, then Ashkenazy probably isn’t ‘great’. But if profound musicianship and a respect and a love for the music, communicated to (but perhaps ‘shared with’ would be better) the audience, are the hallmarks of greatness then he certainly should be so described. I cannot remember ever finding an Ashkenazy performance seriously disappointing, and I have certainly never felt, as I have with some conductors, that the desire to be noticed, the desire to be different, has actually got between me and the music. Ashkenazy has an almost infallible sense of idiom, coupled with an evident joy in what he is doing. An Ashkenazy-conducted concert is usually a very positive and rewarding experience – this one assuredly was.

The opening bars of the overture to Béatrice et Bénédict were full of vivacity and were later complemented by an equally well-judged (and comedically ‘polite’) melancholy. Late work as the overture may be, it still has something of the glow of Berlioz’s love of Shakespeare about it and given as good a performance as it got here, played with a lightness of touch that brought out both its playfulness and its occasional poignancy, it remains a rewarding piece.

Alina Pogostkina, still under thirty, was the accomplished soloist in Bruch’s First Violin Concerto, and the performance made one remember that amongst Ashkenazy’s many other virtues he certainly knows how to support a soloist. One was immediately struck by the sheer beauty of tone she produced – playing an instrument made by Antonio Stradivari in 1709. To comment on the instrument’s remarkable beauty of sound is, of course, a tribute to Pogostkina’s playing of it too. Not that beauty of sound was indulged at the expense of any other virtues. This was an expressively lyrical reading of the concerto, gracefully floating out long melodic lines, but capable, where necessary, of real bite, too. This is a concerto always in danger of sounding over-familiar but Pogostkina brought a delightful freshness to her performance, without doing anything wilful or self-indulgent with Bruch’s writing. (Am I alone in feeling that Bruch’s orchestral writing is mostly rather humdrum, while the writing for the soloist is extraordinarily fine?) Pogostkina’s work in the slow movement was altogether beautiful, drenched in sentiment but never crossing the line into the sentimental; in the final movement her Hungarian inflections were engagingly winning and she and Ashkenazy powerfully sustained interest in the somewhat repetitious materials out of which Bruch makes the movement.

The third work on the programme, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique occupies a very different romantic world. Ashkenazy seems to have conducted the work a number of times recently; perhaps that suggests a particular interest in it – certainly he conducted it with fire and intelligence. ‘Rêveries, Passions’ wasn’t quite as fevered as in some accounts, but the signature melody of the Beloved (it seems to trivialise the work if one thinks only in terms of Harriet Smithson) was very finely phrased and the contrapuntal writing at the end of the movement was articulated with utter conviction and certainty. In ‘Un Bal’ the waltz was wholly ravishing, full of grace and yet of lushness too, achieving a perfect balance between weight and movement. The ‘Scène aux champs’ was memorable, played with a great sense of spaciousness, the woodwinds and strings heard at their impressive best; Jill Crowcroft’s serenely eloquent playing of the solo cor anglais was complemented by Gordon Hunt’s offstage oboe, and the dialogue for cor anglais and four percussionists (which must have been utterly startling to Berlioz’s contemporaries and still seems extraordinary) was gripping, the percussionists (with very precise playing) creating a storm of formidable ‘wildness’. Ashkenazy did full justice to the dramatic opening of the March au supplice, although there were moments when the forward movement seemed just a little hurried; still the fierce accents made a powerful impact and the playing of the Philharmonia brass was outstanding. The Songe d’un Nuit du Sabbat was splendid, all of Berlioz’s shockingly transgressive orchestral effects savoured and played with demonic energy. This is one of music’s greatest exemplars of the grotesque and no one hearing this performance could have been left in any doubt of the fact; the movement (in which Macbeth was doubtless remembered) and the work as a whole are a kind of Berliozian endorsement and imitation of Shakespeare’s refusal to abide by the classical rules of genre, to separate out neatly the ‘comic’ and the ‘tragic’ as absolute categories of human experience and art which should never meet. It is precisely that refusal to adhere to the generic distinctions, which was Voltaire’s fundamental complaint about Shakespeare, which Berlioz turns into an aesthetic given triumphant affirmation in the Symphonie Fantastique, in which the conceit of the ‘dream’ allows for precisely that superimposition and interaction of modes which neo-classicism regarded as mutually exclusive opposites which gives the work its peculiar (and prophetic) power.

All in all this was a richly enjoyable and exhilarating concert. At its heart was Ashkenazy, though not because of any eagerness to draw attention to himself; his modesty seems genuine, his respect for the music too great to allow too much of that. It was neatly symbolic than when applauded rapturously and lengthily at the concert’s end, Ashkenazy smiled at the audience, picked up the score and pointed first to that and then to the orchestra. Of course, it helps to have so fine an orchestra as the Philharmonia at one’s disposal.

Glyn Pursglove