Hélène Grimaud and Vladimir Ashkenazy – Royal Festival Hall Farewell

Written by: Colin Anderson

The curtain is nearly closed on the Royal Festival Hall before refurbishment. Two of the last artists to appear in the present Hall pass some comments on the existing and hoped-for future auditorium…

This is something of a retrospective and an opportunity for this writer to be nostalgic. It was back in 1975 that I first attended a concert in the Royal Festival Hall. 30 years ago! I was a youngster of 17 and it seemed the most natural thing to be there. A great evening, too, the London Symphony Orchestra and Mstislav Rostropovich raising the roof with Shostakovich (then recently deceased) and Prokofiev.

During those 30 years I recall Karajan and the Berlin Phil in Mahler, Sir Adrian Boult’s last concerts; so many things, hundreds of events. Times change and the LSO is elsewhere these days, which leaves the London Philharmonic and Philharmonia orchestras as the RFH’s linchpin. It’s the latter that gives the final orchestral concert, on 21 June, before the hall closes for an 18-month refurbishment (during which period the orchestras will play in the Queen Elizabeth Hall); this isn’t the last classical concert though for Alfred Brendel plays there on the following night.

Conducting the Philharmonia is Vladimir Ashkenazy with Hélène Grimaud the soloist in one of the most popular of piano concertos, Rachmaninov’s Second. Both these fine musicians are a pleasure to talk with. Hélène told me that the Festival Hall is “pretty unforgiving for the piano, acoustically speaking. On stage it’s fine but you can tell that the sound doesn’t travel far and that it’s dull and dry and there’s no resonance. A slightly warmer environment will be a plus. Yet it is still a hall I have a strong attachment for because of some of the great orchestras that I’ve played with there. I really look forward to the next incarnation of the hall.” Hélène will sign off with Rachmaninov, for her a composer “who devoted his entire life almost exclusively to the piano. He was exiled and epitomises the severed soul and being uprooted. He is a composer with great nobility.”

Talking to Vladimir Ashkenazy about Hélène’s way with Rachmaninov – and he should know given they have recorded Concerto No. 2 with the Philharmonia (Teldec 8573-84376-2) – he cites her “emotion and communication; she’s a gifted lady who loves the music and she’s very generous with it. You have to be generous without exaggerating.” All these old friends should make the Philharmonia’s RFH leave-taking something special. After all, Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia have a long and close relationship. “You could interpret it as such! They were terribly nice to me although my conducting was rather poor at that time but they said we like what you want to do so please come and conduct us again.”

To end the concert, Ashkenazy conducts his own, very striking orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. How to do that after Ravel’s version? “It’s not difficult to make one’s own orchestration. Ravel’s is so fantastic but it’s not Russian enough. It’s quite easy to make it Russian, so I did! The orchestra wasn’t Mussorgsky’s medium. He didn’t think in orchestral terms, although when I play it on the piano it has so many colours that I always think of the symphony orchestra and reproduce orchestral colours.” Ashkenazy has recorded his orchestration, with the Philharmonia, and Mussorgsky’s piano original on Decca 414 386-2 for an instructive and enjoyable release.

Even I can claim an appearance in the RFH – a pre-concert interview with maestro Ashkenazy. Small world! What is he looking for from the RFH’s renovation? “It’s not a great hall for orchestras, but the musicians have got used to it and compensate for it. We need a warmer, more rounded sound, and probably a little more reverberation, not too much.” I like such restraint. Yes, a little warmer by a few degrees but hopefully the hall’s immediacy, clarity and tonal fidelity will not be compromised. As Ashkenazy says, “let’s wait and see and keep the current sound in mind to compare.”

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