Two Distinguished Pianists Join Forces in Mozart

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Mozart, Elgar: Piotr Anderszewski (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 9.12.2018. (CC)

Piotr Anderszewski (c) Robert Workman
Piotr Anderszewski (c) Robert Workman

Mendelssohn – Overture, Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, Op.27 (1828)
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K491 (1786)
Elgar – Variations on an Original Theme, ‘Enigma’, Op.36 (1899)

Mendelssohn’s Overture Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) needs more outings, so it was good to see it here. What’s more, there was a real relevance to its inclusion here: Elgar quotes it towards the end of the Enigma Variations. Inspired by Goethe (Beethoven also wrote a cantata on this text), what we as modern listeners need to remind ourselves of is that a calm sea in Mendelssohn’s time was a bad thing. A calm sea meant little or no movement for the vessel, and so it is that Mendelssohn’s opening section has a frisson of stasis. Ashkenazy ensured the evenness of that slow opening string section, perhaps not finding the undercurrent of disquiet, contrasting it (albeit not maximally) with the prosperous side of the coin. The lovely flute of Samuel Coles initiated the transition between the two states beautifully; June Scott’s piccolo enlivened the celebrations, cutting beautifully through the orchestra.

Piotr Anderszewski’s recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.24 was released in 2002; he seems to be going through a mini-Classicist phase, as in early January 2019 he plays Haydn’s D major Piano Concerto in Birmingham, while later that month he plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.13 in C major, a delightful and inventive piece, in Stockholm’s Berwaldhallen. This performance of the C minor Concerto was blessed by the purest, cleanest accompaniment from Ashkenazy, crowned by simply glorious woodwinds. One wonders how pianists feel with a notable fellow pianist at the helm; I remember seeing a billing for a concert in the 1980s of Ashkenazy conducting Pollini in Chopin – quite a combination – but sadly tickets were at a premium and therefore no student standbys. There was something of a feeling that Anderszewski was over-projecting; his was a clean reading, with textures fresh and with no embellishments of Mozart’s line – the long notes in the first movement, for example. Anderszewski played his own, wide-ranging cadenza.

The wind sounded like they were a Harmoniemusik ensemble in the central Larghetto; off-setting this, Anderszewski had a repeated habit of stabbing at the first of a set of repeated chords. Best was the energetic finale, the balance now perfect, the enthusiasm of all infectious. And we got an encore: a nicely turned Beethoven Bagatelle (Op. 126/1).

Ashkenazy’s recordings of Elgar on the Exton label with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra have been reviewed on MusicWeb International by my colleague John Quinn (click here); I would very much like to compare his recorded Enigma with this one. Ashkenazy has a clear affection for this piece and brought out much detail. Orchestral solos were notable, especially viola (Yukiko Ogura) and cello (Timothy Walden); yet it was when the orchestra let its hair down that the fun really began (Variation VII). A shame the eleventh variation was just a touch held back, despite the wonderful brass playing on display; perhaps the highlights were the radiant, naturally paced ‘Nimrod’ and the Mendelssohn quote, the latter perfectly judged by clarinettist Mark van de Wiel. Ashkenazy found more than a hint of Pomp and Circumstance in the resounding, ringing finale.

Both technically and musically, Ashkenazy’s Enigma Variations just pipped Pappano at the Royal Opera House in April this year (review click here), rounding off a well-programmed, well-executed concert.

Colin Clarke

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