Brahms Bookends Lidström as Ashkenazy Conducts at Oxford

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms and Mats Lidström: Mats Lidström (cello), Oxford Philharmonic / Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 7.12.2016. (CR)

Brahms – Academic Festival Overture, Op.80; Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op.73

Mats Lidström – Rigoletto Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra

Vladimir Ashkenazy took up the conductor’s reins for this concert by the Oxford Philharmonic, of which he is a patron, demonstrating an expressive and congenial rapport with the two staples of the orchestral repertoire by Brahms programmed here. He led the orchestra with bustling energy in the Academic Festival Overture in its traversal of various German students’ drinking songs, only broadening out noticeably for the appearance of Gaudeamus Igitur at the climax, making for a properly majestic conclusion in keeping with Brahms’s maestoso marking. In between he drew some striking colours from the orchestra, including some dark timbres that might have represented the expiring Fafner in Wagner’s Siegfried.

The brief opening gesture of Mats Lidström’s Rigoletto Fantasy also recalled Wagner in its brooding chords and how interesting a marriage of the Bayreuth Master with Verdi in an orchestral composition might have been! But that was a false alarm. Lidström – formerly a cellist of the Royal Swedish Opera, and now a member of the Oxford Philharmonic – took inspiration from the fact that Verdi contemplated writing a cello concerto for his friend Alfredo Piatti. What he has produced, however, is more a twenty-minute potpourri of themes from Verdi’s great 1853 opera than a genuine fantasy or metamorphosis of themes as Hindemith did for Weber or Richard Strauss with his own Die Frau ohne Schatten. Still less is it a fantastic melee as Liszt achieved in his keyboard paraphrase on the same opera, upon which Lidström claims to have drawn for some harmonies and infilling between the authentic Verdian episodes. Indeed, an orchestration of Liszt’s composition might well have been more interesting than this rather linear sweep through the opera’s most memorable themes, surveyed in no apparent logical order, and ‘La donna è mobile’ not particularly registering as a commanding climax.

Although Lidström explains that he altered neither Verdi’s scoring nor the keys of the themes recounted, in Ashkenazy’s hands the performance sounded a little more colourful than that of the opera. A certain dance-like vitality recalled at times Johann Strauss II. Lidström’s execution of the solo cello part was, for the most part, quite reticent – if it was meant to stand in place of the human voice which would otherwise have taken the melodies featured – and was somewhat lacking in lyricism such as in a husky rendition of the ‘Questa o quella’ theme. His duet cadenzas with a solo violinist and solo cellist respectively were engaging, however, and his command of the virtuosic adornments of some of the vocal lines was assured. He, and the concertmaster Carmine Lauri, gave a syrupy performance of the siciliana seventh Goldberg variation in an arrangement.

Ashkenazy’s approach to Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 was less flexible than that for the Overture. The main subjects tended to be a touch too rigid in terms of tempo, rather than ebbing and flowing with a freer pace more amenable to the often relaxed nature of this music. The transitions between them, however, were handled fluidly enough. A slightly too brisk tempo also made the first and second movements a little too unyielding at times. To his credit, in his measured way with the finale, Ashkenazy did correctly observe that Brahms nowhere marks this movement ‘Presto’ – as one might otherwise have thought from some performances – not even in the triumphant closing bars where some conductors speed up.

Instead Ashkenazy trusted in the structure he sculpted with the orchestra across each movement and the range of colour he drew from them. The second subject of the first movement for the cellos was beautifully soulful, and the opening of the second movement was glowing, where it can often be rather sepulchral. There could have been a greater sense of hazy mystery at the beginning of the first movement – as though emerging from mountainous mists – but sweet-toned strings and chirruping woodwind made for a generally amiable and polite account of the rustic third movement. Solid integration between strings and brass ensured a thrilling climax to the finale without a hectic dash towards the end. Wooden sticks were used inconsistently on the timpani and were a distracting affectation, making a crude sound when they were employed unnecessarily. Otherwise this was an authoritative interpretation of Brahms’s sunniest symphony, underlining the rigour of its impeccably argued structure.

Curtis Rogers

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