United Kingdom Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov: Alice Sara Ott (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 17.11.2016. (CC)
Borodin – Prince Igor – Overture
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23
Rachmaninov – Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13
The bond between Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia is deep indeed; it is quite an experience to hear playing of this dedication, especially given that Ashkenazy’s conducting gestures are famously awkward. Hearing him conduct the music of his homeland in performances such as these seemed to awaken memories of the glory days, the Golden Age, of the Philharmonia.
The burnished brass, the darkness of the opening and the superb cello/double-bass clarity were beautiful in the Overture to Prince Igor. (Glazunov it was, of course, who wrote this down after hearing it played on the piano by Borodin). It was the perfect way of setting the scene; and one wonders why this piece is not programmed more.
Ashkenazy himself recorded the Tchaikovsky First with the LSO and Maazel for Decca. Here he was, though, on the rostrum and championing the new generation. Alice Sara Ott is a fine pianist, and she brought illumination at each turn to the score. In 2011, I reported, generally positively, on her London debut. The freshness of Ott’s reading was a continual delight. It was a shame there were distractions, including Ott having to tighten a castor a couple of times by reaching down in a rather undignified fashion. Yet her playing consistently spoke of rethinking the score from scratch. If there were initial doubts as to over-pedaling and that much of the earlier part of the first movement was neat but not magical, she did find real fire and imagination in the first movement cadenza. The real constant in this movement and throughout, in fact, was the orchestra, with Ashkenazy illuminating detail everywhere and encouraging his players, particularly the strings, to great passion. The most successful movement was the finale; Ott seemed genuinely to be enjoying herself here, and it showed.
Rachmaninov’s First Symphony needs a great performance to understand its power, and Ashkenazy’s reading oozed rightness. He seemed to scurry onstage like a Yorkshire terrier with its tail wagging and it was fascinating to experience the darkness of the symphony’s opening in stark contrast just a blink of an eye later. The music’s swells were beautifully contoured, the crash at the opening of the development – directly analogous to that in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony – making its mark perfectly, as did the ensuing fugato. A special mention is in order for the brass in this movement, who were simply glorious.
Fascinatingly, Ashkenazy found an almost pastoral shade to the opening of the second movement Allegro animato; later, the music flickered like a Russian Mendelssohn. It was the slow movement, the Larghetto, that was truly outstanding, especially the clarinet contributions of Mark Van de Wiel. Ashkenazy found a still heart of darkness, relishing Rachmaninov’s glorious string writing. The brash finale could hardly have been more different. Why Ashkenazy subdivides the beat so much I remain unsure, it seems to smack of over-control, but it works in terms of results. (There is something of a case to be made for closing one’s eyes in an Ashkenazy performance: the musicality that’s going on really speaks then). And if it works, why judge? This was a phenomenal performance, with the Philharmonia on absolute top form.
Before the main event the Philharmonia Chamber Players performed in a programme perfectly complementing the later concert. Music by Borodin (the astonishing two-movement String Sextet, expressively done and clearly the result of much rehearsal – a miraculous outpouring of lyricism) sat with rather harder-edged Schnittke (his Praeludium In Memoriam Shostakovich). There was also some gloriously phrased Prokofiev (the Waltz from War and Peace). Shostakovich made it in there with his Two Pieces, Op. 11 (Prelude and bipolar Scherzo, although that’s not the official title) and the delightful Polka from Moscow Cheryomushki. A real treat.