Vladimir Ashkenazy at the Three Choirs Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar, Sibelius, Rachmaninov: Helena Juntunen (soprano), Paul Nilon (tenor), Nathan Berg (baritone), Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor), Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester Cathedral, 27.7.2013 (JQ)

Elgar: In the South, Op. 50 (1903/4)
Sibelius: Luonnotar, Op. 70 (1913)
Rachmaninov: The Bells, Op. 35 (1913)

The first full day of the Three Choirs Festival involved performances by two notable pianists – but only one of them played the piano! In the afternoon Peter Donohoe had offered a compelling piano recital. Nowadays Vladimir Ashkenazy has largely forsaken playing the piano in public – which is a great shame – and concentrates on conducting, in which capacity he had been engaged by the Three Choirs Festival. He’s been active on the podium for many years now and this programme included works by two composers with whom he’s been identified right from the start of his conducting career and a third – Elgar – whose music he’s conducted quite a lot in recent years. The Sibelius and Rachmaninov works fitted perfectly with one of the themes of this Festival in that both were composed in 1913: the Elgar was penned a decade earlier.

I approached this concert not quite sure what to expect. Ashkenazy is well known as a conductor of Sibelius; in fact one of his earliest recording assignments was a cycle of the symphonies and other works, including Luonnotar, with the Philharmonia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Those recordings were, as I recall, well received at the time, as they were more recently for MusicWeb International by Rob Barnett (review). A few years ago I reviewed some recordings of Rachmaninov that he made with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, which I enjoyed, as I did a concert performance with the Philharmonia of the composer’s Second Symphony (review). However, subsequently some discs of Elgar’s orchestral music came my way which were less memorable (review) followed by a recording of The Dream of Gerontius which was among the most forgettable I’ve ever heard (review).

I hope I wasn’t prejudiced by my past experiences but, in truth, the concert could be said to have gone ‘to form’ in that Ashkenazy seemed progressively more attuned to each work as the programme unfolded. I’m not sure that his conducting technique helped in the Elgar. He has a strange style; very often his beat is jerky and stiff-wristed and when he conducts like this his baton doesn’t appear to impart any sense of flow to the orchestra. In addition, many of his gestures and body movements seemed very cramped. There may well be some physical causes that produce these results but his way of conducting doesn’t seem at all relaxed or natural. So, though there was a good deal to admire in the Philharmonia’s playing of Elgar’s fabulously rich, opulent score – not least a lovely, pensive viola solo (Rebecca Chambers) in the canto popolare episode – I wasn’t convinced that Ashkenazy put any individual stamp on the music. To be fair, he conducted the canto popolare passage with evident feeling but this is a work that should sweep the listener off his or her feet and this performance, for all the merits of the playing, just didn’t have that effect on me: it had insufficient swagger and impetuosity.

I wonder how many music lovers, if asked, would know that Luonnotar was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival and received its first performance in Gloucester Cathedral in 1913. In fact, as Malcolm Hayes explained in his excellent programme note, the Festival commissioned a choral work; what they actually got was a work for soprano solo and orchestra that is very difficult to pigeonhole. Part scena, part tone poem, it’s a piece in which Sibelius drew yet again on the great Finnish epic, the Kalevala. The very first Gloucester performance was given by the great Finnish soprano, Aino Ackté. In engaging Helena Juntunen the present-day Festival had made an equally astute choice. A few years ago Miss Juntunen was the soloist on a gripping recording conducted by Osmo Vänskä (review) and her performance here was no less involving. It’s a strange piece, not least in terms of the orchestral scoring which, for the most part, is lean and sparse: perhaps that’s unsurprising since only two years separate the gaunt Fourth Symphony of 1911 and Luonnotar. Miss Juntunen, singing from memory, was a committed and dramatic soloist, her tone gleaming and her projection of the text vivid. It seemed to me that Ashkenazy drew an authentic Sibelian sound from the orchestra, getting the sparse textures right and building the one powerful climax in the work very successfully. This stark music was potently performed by all concerned. I don’t know what the 1913 Gloucester audience made of it – applause wasn’t allowed in those days at Three Choirs – but their successors in 2013 received the revival warmly, vindicating the inspired decision of Festival Director Adrian Partington to mount a centenary revival of this rather neglected work.

After the interval we finally got to hear the 2013 Festival Chorus in action in a performance of Rachmaninov’s great Poe setting, The Bells. Here Ashkenazy was very much on home territory; after all, in his days as a renowned piano virtuoso he was noted as one of the great Rachmaninov pianists. He’s attuned to the Russian master’s music and it showed in this performance. Its four movements could be said to represent the Russian life-cycle of the times; as Rachmaninov himself said, the sound of church bells “accompanied every Russian from childhood to the grave and no composer could escape their influence.”

In the first movement, ‘The Silver Sleigh-Bells’, the bright silvery orchestral sounds were well delivered and the choir sang with commitment though the resonant acoustic of the cathedral was not ideally suited to this music and a good deal of inner choral and orchestral detail went for naught. Tenor Paul Nilon seemed to struggle to make an impact. Often one strained to hear him against the orchestral and choral forces and his voice lacked the ‘ping’ and plangency of an authentic Slavic tenor. It seemed to me that he was rather too often tethered to his score. Helena Juntunen gave another imperious performance in ‘The Mellow Wedding-Bells’. I thought it was not without significance that in this movement Ashkenazy’s beat had much more flow to it than I’d noticed earlier in the evening; perhaps this was why he so successfully brought out the passionate melancholy in the long orchestral introduction and, indeed, throughout the movement. The chorus came fully into their own in the third movement, ‘The Loud Alarum Bells’. They sang this with great gusto and if, once again, some detail was sacrificed to the acoustic the overall impression was powerful and exciting. The most eloquent music is heard in the final movement, ‘The Mournful Iron Bells’. The extended doleful cor anglais solo was played most expressively by Jill Crowther, setting up the melancholy mood of the movement in an ideal fashion. Baritone Nathan Berg looked and sounded the part and his singing had excellent presence and intensity. The bleak sadness of the music came over well under Ashkenazy’s guidance.

So the 2013 Three Choirs Festival is well and truly under way with much more to which we can look forward over the coming week.

John Quinn