Ashkenazy conducts Mahler – 4th June

Symphony No.2 in C minor (Resurrection)

Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano)
Birgit Remmert (mezzo-soprano)
Philharmonia Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 4 June, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

It may have seemed an odd choice of work to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, but in one sense, given the resurgence of interest in the monarchy that this year has generated (surely a republican’s worst nightmare), there has indeed been a ’resurrection’ in goodwill towards the idea that keeps us ’subjects’ rather than makes us ’citizens’.

There should never be any excuse to programme Mahler’s mighty work and in Vladimir Ashkenazy the Philharmonia chose an intriguing conductor. Indeed, I cannot recall an Ashkenazy performance of a Mahler choral symphony in London – certainly since his departure from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It is one of the strange facets of Ashkenazy’s career that the repertoire he has brought to London is only partly representative of his interests. It may surprise readers that he gave the German première of Messiaen’s last work, Éclairs sur l’au-delà, and he has championed many contemporary composers.

It was good to hear Ashkenazy relishing the dramatic contrasts of Mahler 2 from the very start – the urgency of the opening tremolandi, the rising scales and the answering stabbing syncopated motif which characterises much of the music. Yes the early and all-too-audible interjection from a member of the audience in the back terrace, who started shouting and had to be forcibly removed by Hall stewards about a third of the movement in, was disruptive, but the orchestra and conductor kept their cool. (Ashkenazy mouthed Concert Master Christopher Warren-Green as to whether they should stop, but he could see the offender being hustled away … carry on.) Ashkenazy generated the elemental feeling of this music well – he is not one to indulge in slow tempi as a rule anyway – but he also foreshortened the composer’s requested five-minute break at the end of the first movement, moving perhaps too rapidly into the second, a relaxed Ländler which describes a sunny reverie.

The central ’Scherzo’, based on his “Wunderhorn” song about St Anthony’s sermon to the fishes, was brisk too, the wind relishing their individual lines (although perhaps not as characterful as Bĕlohlàvek’s conjuring of the BBCSO’s wind for Das Lied von der Erde five days earlier at the Barbican), in marked contrast to Birgit Remmert’s heartfelt ensuing paean to God, the radiant red of her dress matching the first line of the lyric – “O Röschen rot!”Here, Ashkenazy scored in simple stage direction – he had Remmert emerge from the left-hand Choir door to sing above the orchestra, exiting at the end of the song.She then emerged with Inger Dam-Jensen at the height of the tumultuous final movement, just as the first great percussion crescendo started, to take their places by Ashkenazy’s side. Such well thought out stage entrances can make – or, more easily, break – performances: here there was no opportunity for intrusive audience applause, the flow of the music and the composer’s intent fully served.

Another major plus in Ashkenazy’s favour was Robert Dean’s well-prepared Philharmonia Chorus, which sang Klopstock’s ’Resurrection Ode’ from memory.Such trompe l’œils are what make concerts special and – like the carefully balanced offstage passages from brass and percussion – this worked a treat.

I have to admit that re-reading Klopstock’s ode (with Mahler’s additions), about having to die to be reborn again, stretches my credulity too far, so the spiritual side this time evaded me, but perhaps that was also to do with Ashkenazy’s utterly truthful response to the music as written. Once again he proved a reliable, unfussy and clear guide and, if some of the orchestral textures were not as clean as they may have been under the pristine if vacuous batons of a Barenboim or a Maazel, at least the spirit and power of the music was best served. That, I think, is always the most important thing.

  • Ashkenazy conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in the RFH on 14 June in Stravinsky, Liszt and Rimsky-Korsakov
  • RFH Box Office: 020 7960 4201
  • Philharmonia Orchestra Box Office: 0800 652 6717 (freephone)

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