Superb Playing of Russian Music by Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Borodin: Alice Sara Ott (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 18.11.2016. (PCG)

BorodinPrince Igor: Overture
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor Op.23
Rachmaninov – Symphony No.1 in D minor Op.13

This programme looked at first sight like a reversion to the traditional concert format of contrasted overture, concerto and symphony, but in fact the three works included had a great deal in common with each other. All three were Russian, of course, and all three came from the latter end of the nineteenth century; but also all three in their very different ways had undergone traumatic births on their way to becoming the concert staples that they have become today.

The Borodin overture to Prince Igor probably had the most traumatic origins of any, since the composer never survived to commit a single note of the music to paper. What we now know as the ‘Prince Igor Overture’ was constructed by Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov as part of their rescue mission on the complete opera, and was supposedly based on memories by Glazunov of what Borodin had played on several occasions at the piano. Leaving aside the matter of how far Borodin might have changed his mind about the structure of the music (admittedly largely based on previously drafted material for the opera itself) and the accuracy of Glazunov’s reputedly phenomenal memory, it remains surprising how far the overture has become accepted as genuine Borodin when there is so much scepticism attached to Glazunov and Rimsky’s similarly speculative reconstruction of Borodin’s third act for the opera.

Similarly some doubt must attach to Tchaikovsky’s account, related in Peter Reynolds’s excellent programme note (how we are going to miss him!) of how he played his first piano concerto to Nicolai Rubinstein and the latter’s frosty reception of the proposed dedication of the score. This was a perceptive move on Tchaikovsky’s part: Rubinstein was not only the best established composer in Russia at the time, but also a promoter and pianist in his own right – but it would appear that the classically minded elements in Rubinstein revolted at Tchaikovsky’s free fantasia-like approach to the formal structure of the concerto;  in particular, one would suspect his abandonment of the famous opening theme after its initial statement without a backward glance. Tchaikovsky apparently told Rubinstein that he would produce the concerto without any of the alterations that Rubinstein had insisted upon; but in point of fact he did make some quite substantial amendments at a later stage, presumably before the first performance given by the new dedicatee Hans von Bülow.

Rachmaninov, on the other hand, never got a chance to make any alterations to his first symphony (as he did substantially to his even earlier first piano concerto). This was simply because, following its disastrous première under an uninterested (and allegedly drunk) Glazunov, he had destroyed the score without any apparent thought that it might subsequently be reconstructed or revived. One wonders. The composer had prepared a two-piano reduction for publication, and he must have been aware that the orchestral parts were lodged in a St Petersburg library awaiting potential exhumation. At all events he ended the first movement of his Symphonic Dances forty years later with a quotation of the principal theme from this symphony, and in view of the fact that hardly a handful of hearers in the world would have heard the solitary performance he may have wished to draw attention to the merits of his early work in symphonic form. It deserves such attention; Rachmaninov’s scoring may have become more elaborate in his later years, but the drive of the symphony’s finale matches anything to be found in his later scores. Only the slow movement misses (and it decidedly does miss) the lyrical rapture which later became one of Rachmaninov’s trade-marks. One wonders what Cui found so objectionable in the score; maybe it was simply a very bad first performance.

The performances here, on the other hand, made all of these factors abundantly clear. Vladimir Ashkenazy is an old hand at Russian music of this period, and clearly relishes these scores. The orchestra played superbly, even the two leading violins making light of their tricky unison passages as soloists (always very difficult to keep attuned accurately). Alice Sara Ott was a full-blooded exponent of the Tchaikovsky concerto, and again the balance between her and the orchestra was finely judged. The string articulation in the Prince Igor overture might perhaps have been clearer at a slightly less frenetic speed, but the excitement was palpable; and this was the only possible criticism that could be levelled against performances of such quality. The large audience (even the seats behind the orchestra were well populated) received the performers with enthusiasm, and this was thoroughly well-deserved. It is good indeed to see the ‘international concert series’ at this hall beginning to attract larger numbers of listeners.

Paul Corfield Godfrey


2 thoughts on “Superb Playing of Russian Music by Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia”

  1. We were in the seats behind the orchestra and enjoyed every minute. Alice Sara Ott’s performance was made all the more enjoyable by her pre-performance talk – interesting to hear how she approaches the piece; she was influenced by a visit to Kamenka and I did think she made the folk elements come to the fore. I particularly loved the way she interacted with the orchestra, especially the flute/piano dialogue. Fabulous stuff, and a renewed take on what’s become a bit of a warhorse.

    Rachmaninov’s symphony has been a long favourite of mine, and I thought of him sobbing behind the scenes as Glazunov (allegedly) hashed the work; Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia more than vindicated Rachmaninov with their great cohesiveness and their interesting exploration of the themes, which were finally brought together in the fourth movement, as the Dies Irae turned to a triumphant major. Rachmaninov, you were right all along. I wished you had been able to be there to hear it. A real treat.


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