United Kingdom Berlioz, Chopin, Rachmaninov: Ingolf Wunder (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 4.11.2015. (PCG)
Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture, Op.9
Chopin: Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor, Op.11
Rachmaninov: Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op.22
Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony is a sprawling work extending to nearly an hour in length. Although there are some concessions to symphonic form, these are nothing like as cogent as in his First Symphony which at the time the composer had consigned to the flames following its disastrous first performance. (It was only reconstructed from the orchestral parts after Rachmaninov’s death.. But although a charge of formlessness could be levelled against the work, the individual melodies and ideas that are strung together are so rich, so emotional and so striking that the listener can readily accept the work as a sort of symphonic rhapsody without being troubled by the diffuse nature of the composer’s inspiration. In later years Rachmaninov returned to the symphony, making some quite extensive cuts (different ones at different times) which may have been made with reluctance although it was this later version that he seems to have regarded as the final form of the score. It was certainly the revised and cut symphony which Rachmaninov’s friend and colleague Eugene Ormandy presented on his first three recordings of the work. But from the 1970s onwards it has become customary to reinstate Rachmaninov’s cuts (as Ormandy did in his final recording) and, despite reservations over ignoring the composer’s apparent wishes, such a trend has been welcome; mature Rachmaninov, however discursive, is too precious to be relegated to the waste-paper basket. (A similar case could be made for the original version of Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony, where the tightening and (in places) improvement of the score cannot obviate regret at some wonderfully atmospheric passages which the composer excised.)
Ashkenazy has recorded this symphony twice, once for Decca with the Concertgebouw and more recently with his Sydney orchestra (on both occasions both restoring Rachmaninov’s cuts, as well as the exposition repeat in the first movement which we were not given in this concert). Here he returned to the Philharmonia, with whom he made such excellent recordings of the Sibelius symphonies in the 1980s. Both his recordings have garnered some criticism for his fast speeds (although he is not appreciably faster than Previn, for example) but this did not generally strike me as a problem here, with results that were very exciting. The orchestra seemed to have the measure of the difficult St David’s Hall acoustic, and their playing was excellent throughout. Only at one point did there appear to be a problem with excessive speeds, where the challenging pace Ashkenazy set for the finale robbed the violins of the chance to fully articulate their agitated cascades of notes and allowed the brass to dominate the texture to an undesirable degree. But there were no such problems earlier, and the slow movement (a sort of precursor of all the Hollywood film romantic scenes of the 1930s) had all the richness and passion that anyone could wish.
In the first half of the concert we were given a superb performance of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto (in fact his second to be premièred) with Ingolf Wunder as the soloist. Despite the reduction in the orchestral forces, with only two double-basses, Ashkenazy was unable to conceal the decidedly tubby sound of Chopin’s orchestration in the opening tutti; but the playing of Wunder made full amends, delicately spinning out the notes in an impeccable filigree line. The ornamentation however was never allowed to delay the onward flow of the melodies, and Wunder displayed plenty of power too when needed. There was never any sense, as we sometimes encounter, that the pianist was so in love with the music that he killed it with kindness, relishing the decoration to such an extent that the melodic lines stiffen and die. On the contrary, the essential form of the work was perfectly realised, and Wunder made his affection for the music clear not by over-indulgence but instead by the beautiful shading he brought to his lines. Ashkenazy, no mean Chopinist himself, made a sure impression and followed his soloist unerringly through every rubato. He and Wunder have recorded Chopin recently on a CD which was selected by Classic FM as an “album of the week”, and no wonder. The presence of this performance on the programme may perhaps have accounted for the singularly large audience in the hall. (As we saw with The Bells a month ago, the name of Rachmaninov on the bill does not automatically guarantee a full house in Cardiff.) They will certainly not have been disappointed in what they heard here.
At the beginning we had heard Berlioz’s Roman Carnival overture, and the string playing at the start showed that the violins had not at that stage really got the measure of the hall; as in the finale of the Rachmaninov symphony, the brass dominated the texture to the detriment of the music. But there was plenty of fizz in the orchestral realisation of Berlioz’s often very quirky scoring even when a hint of imprecision threatened to overtake the players during the violent contrasts of texture and tempo. Jill Crowther was superbly poised in her opening cor anglais solo, as indeed was Mark van der Wiel in his big clarinet melody in the third movement of the Rachmaninov; but the players in general gave of their best for their veteran conductor. He may have stumbled over a cable on his way to the podium (he made a joke of it later), but there was no sign of age or frailty in performances which bubbled with life. The sheer longevity of Ashkenazy’s career may have led in the past for him to be underestimated as a conductor, but this would be a mistake; his understanding of the music in this programme, and his ability to realise his intentions, were apparent and irresistible. A deservedly enthusiastic audience cheered him and the orchestra to the echo after each and every item.
Paul Corfield Godfrey