Ashkenazy and Philharmonia Celebrate Sibelius Anniversary in Great Style

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius: Vadim Repin (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 18.3.2015 (PCG)

Karelia Suite, Op.11
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Symphony No 5 in E flat, Op.82


A month ago I was very properly enthusiastic about a Ravel and Stravinsky programme given by this same orchestra in St David’s Hall, and here again there was a sense of balance in the playing which demonstrated that (unlike so many visiting orchestras) the players had come to terms with the idiosyncratic acoustic of the venue, even though the number of individuals concerned was considerably smaller – to an extent that the stage area could be reduced allowing for more seating to be available for the very large audience. The choice of an all-Sibelius programme was of course amply justified by the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, although one might regret that the opportunity was not taken to let us hear a concert of lesser-known works such as the Lemminkainen Suite.

 In the opening movement of the Karelia Suite Ashkenazy took the central section – from the entry of the trumpets with the main theme – at a considerably brisker speed than the properly mysterious opening, with the result that he had to slow down again at the conclusion. The composer’s intentions (with the central section confusingly marked simply “Meno”) are admittedly unclear here, but one would have preferred a rather steadier tempo to ensure that the music cohered. Otherwise this was a spick-and-span performance with some superb playing from the horns, and the sense of contrast elsewhere was perfectly judged.

 One is frequently gratified in performances of the Violin Concerto if the player can simply get round the notes, but Vadim Repin did considerably more than that. He consistently managed to introduce new and well-considered insights and subtleties which were far removed from sheer virtuosity – although there was plenty of that too, especially in his sparkling account of the final movement. Earlier there had been moments when the flow of the music seemed to hang fire, with soloist and conductor seeming to wait on each other, but that was probably the result of Sibelius’s score itself, with the abridgement of the original and even more virtuosic writing toned down. In the context of an all-Sibelius programme there seemed to be no obvious candidate for a solo violin encore, and quite rightly Repin did not give us one. He had already given us plenty of good solid meat beforehand.

 After the interval we had just one work in the shape of the Fifth Symphony, and very satisfying it was too. Ashkenazy perfectly judged the progressive acceleration during the scherzo-like latter stages of the first movement, making certain that the music did not run away with itself; and the building of the grand climaxes of the finale was impressive indeed with the orchestra pouring out glorious tone (again, superb playing from the horns in particular). In the final bars however, where Sibelius’s score asks for “un pocchetino stretto” Ashkenazy supplied us with a sudden acceleration which detracted from the sense of steady progression leading to the detached final chords; listening the following day to his recording of the work with the same orchestra made some thirty years ago (is it really that long?) I noted that the accretion of speed was less sudden, more considered. But otherwise this was again a splendid performance, in which the two Russian protagonists showed full sympathy with the Slavic tendencies in the composer’s music. The hall was much fuller than has been the case for some other concerts in the St David’s Hall “international” series, and the near-capacity audience was properly enthusiastic.


Paul Corfield Godfrey


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