Czech Philharmonic/Ashkenazy – 13 November

Jeux – poème danse
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53
Frescoes of Piera della Francesca
Rhapsodie espagnole

Elisabeth Batiashvili (violin)

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 13 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

There were no encores and the opening and closing items – Martinu and Ravel – both benefited from Ashkenazy’s instinct for musical mechanism. Rhapsodie espagnole can be more atmospheric; equally it can pall. Ashkenazy kept the ’Prélude à la nuit’ and ’Habañera’ on the move (with unusual prominence given to the celesta in the latter), to the considerable benefit of both in terms of flow. In the two fast movements, and especially the last (’Feria’), some may have felt short-changed by the way Ashkenazy interlocked episodes and disdained languor, an approach justified in the way that small motives stayed in recognisable shape whatever the pace. Ravel’s watchmaker approach to composition suggests Ashkenazy had more than a point.

It was an approach that worked equally well in Martinu’s first movement – clocks ticking and gears synchronising as chords and decorations intermingle, Martinu’s mosaic-like scoring given its full glory. Ashkenazy knows that this of all orchestras do not to be pressured; in the final part the cellos intense national identity with a chorale-like melody really came from within. This was a shimmering and shapely rendition given with pride, with a snatch of Vaughan Williams’s pre-written Fifth Symphony emerging in the second movement (purely coincidental I’m sure).

The Czech Phil’s warmth and ardour is always a pleasure. It retains, albeit diluted, some fruity tones, ones not unequal with the sort of timbres Debussy would have known. While such soft-grained vibrancy was a delight for Jeux, this was also a slightly too vivid and explicit rendition, not least at the climax, which was raucous. For a work often cited as seminal, visionary and influential on the next generation – Boulez included – Ashkenazy made it nostalgic and lacking the expressional freedom and ’blurred’ soundworld that this music needs if it is to be its secret self.

Elisabeth Batiashvili again demonstrated, once past a scrappy few opening minutes, that she is a terrific player with a great future. Somewhat in the mould of Mullova, Batiashvili’s fire-and-ice never really squared with Dvořák’s mellifluous and dancing work. Rather heavily phrased with an intensity that appealed in itself but was over-wrought in context, Batiashvili served notice as to her potential but suggested this really isn’t her piece. The ’Finale’, too fast, had a stabbing quality and little suggestion of folk-dance; the opening movement being regimental with lyrical sections not as touching as can be. Ashkenazy ensured that Dvořák’s inviting woodwind writing was clear, yet Batiashvili was at one remove from such entreaty.

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