Ashkenazy & Kissin

Mendelssohn
Overture – The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56 (Scottish)
Beethoven
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58

Evgeny Kissin (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy


Reviewed by: Diarmuid Dunne

Reviewed: 3 June, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture opened the Philharmonia Orchestra’s everyman Cancer Research benefit concert. Originally titled ‘The Lonely Island’ the overture was inspired by Fingal’s Cave on the Island of Staffa. The peaceful opening with the strings imitating the gentle swelling motion of the waves was excellently portrayed by Ashkenazy and the orchestra, the whole being wonderfully atmospheric. The strings in particular were superb throughout, producing a fabulously rich and lush sound.

Evgeny Kissin never has any trouble filling concerts halls, but, in recent times, reviews of his performances have been getting less than complimentary – mention of contrived, unnatural dynamics and unmusical performances have nagged him, and were well justified. Gone, it seemed, were the days of the natural virtuoso who, aged 12, stunned Moscow audiences with his renditions of Chopin’s concertos. It’s never seemed to bother the general public though. This Beethoven concerto was something of a return to the Kissin of old. The opening Allegro moderato was filled with sparkling dialogue between piano and orchestra, and Kissin’s glittering passagework and clean, svelte phrasing were a joy to listen to.

The Andante con moto was exceptionally judged, with the Philharmonia’s strings barely breathing over some extraordinarily lucid and delicate playing from the pianist. The Vivace finale was everything the first two movements had promised. Kissin was interacting beautifully with the orchestra, and their natural and sparky exchanges made one smile. His ability to change mood with such languid ease and the energy, bounce and sheer authority in his hands and fingers were truly captivating.

Kissin gave two encores, the first by Mendelssohn, the second by Beethoven, Kissin seeming to announce “bog bog” for the latter. Beethoven didn’t write anything called ‘bog bog’ though. Nor did anyone else. I checked!

Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony was inspired by the same tour of Scotland that produced the Hebrides Overture; however, although started in 1830, work on the symphony was intermittent and it was finally completed and dedicated to Queen Victoria in 1842. Vladimir Ashkenazy seems to have especial affection for the piece, obvious from his careful handling and obvious engagement with the music. Once again the Philharmonia’s strings were marvellously evocative in the somewhat gloomy slow opening to the first movement, the dark Scottish weather eventually whipped up into a storm.

The lively scherzo produced some light relief with a Scottish folksong-type melody, a Mendelssohn original, who abhorred national melodies on principal, “…anything but national music! May ten thousand devils take all folklore … a harpist sits in the lobby of every inn of repute playing so-called folk melodies at you – dreadful, vulgar, fake stuff; and simultaneously a hurdy-gurdy is tooting out melodies – it’s enough to drive you crazy…”. Or take to drink? Mine’s a single malt!

The Adagio was convincingly realised, one or two woodwind and brass wobbles aside, and the final movement picked up the pace, enjoyable for not being rushed, Ashkenazy giving the music room to breath, with the optimistic conclusion avoiding bombast to end a wonderful evening for a truly deserving cause.

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