Ashkenazy Enigma Variations

Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36

Till Fellner (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 1 March, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

One of the world’s major orchestras with a much-loved musician conducting a programme of core repertoire, one to which it was deemed safe to bring a large group of schoolchildren. What more could one want? Sadly, though, this proved a less than euphoric evening.

If the success of a performance of Enigma Variations was measured in decibels, this one (complete with the ad lib organ in the final bars) would undoubtedly taken the palm. Therein lay half the problem – it was constantly too loud, and too loud in an uncontrolled way. Yes, several of the variations contain music that is meant to be resounding, but here they were simply ill-focussed. Ashkenazy is undoubtedly a great musician. However, as a conductor he seems to see his role primarily as an animateur inspiring those around him but placing less importance on precision. On this occasion he plunged impatiently into the work’s opening and the orchestra never seemed to quite catch up, the strings frequently playing slightly behind the beat. There were some incidental pleasures, not least Rachel Roberts’s subtle viola and David Watkin’s impassioned cello. Elsewhere though, particularly in ‘Nimrod’ and in the final variation (Elgar painting a self-portrait), it was a case of too much too soon with consequently diminishing returns, enthusiasm frequently substituting for subtlety.

Earlier, Till Fellner’s matter-of-fact deconstruction of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto – clean, precise and undernourished – offered little. It was the musical equivalent of drinking thin and vinegary claret. Fellner’s tone is curiously uningratiating, as if he would have preferred to play a fortepiano and was trying to replicate a similar sound from a concert grand. Ashkenazy provided an adequate accompaniment but there wasn’t much communication between conductor and soloist. The extreme clarity of Fellner’s trills in the slow movement and his understated treatment of the finale’s opening theme stay in the mind; otherwise this was a chilly, uninvolving performance.

The Egmont Overture had the merit of being crisp and straightforward but with too little held in reserve; the orchestra had to work ever harder to try and generate the appropriate uplift when the floodgates of Liberty opened in the coda, which, however, was brazen rather than triumphantly rejoicing.

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