London Chamber Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy at Cadogan Hall – Sibelius & Shostakovich – Alexey Stadler plays Elgar’s Cello Concerto

Sibelius
Rakastava, Op.14
Elgar
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Shostakovich
Two Pieces for String Octet
Shostakovich, arr. Rudolf Barshai
Chamber Symphony, Op 110a [transcription of String Quartet No.8 in C minor, Op.110]

Alexey Stadler (cello)

London Chamber Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 3 December, 2014
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Vladimir Ashkenazy. Photograph: Keith SaundersOne of those rare pleasures in Life is going to a concert where elements – such as music-making, location and audience – combine to produce a tangible sense of occasion. Vladimir Ashkenazy is hardly an unknown quantity whilst the London Chamber Orchestra – whose President he is – has been in existence since 1921; by contrast, Alexey Stadler, was making his London concerto debut. Cadogan Hall was warm and welcoming on a cold winter’s night and the audience was totally engaged and hanging on every note.

The concert opened with Ashkenazy and the LCO’s music director, Christopher Warren-Green, discussing the programme. These things ‘can’ be a bore. Not here. Ashkenazy’s reminiscences of Shostakovich, of working with Jacqueline du Pré and of his unfamiliarity with Sibelius’s music until his Icelandic wife introduced him to it whilst they were both students in Moscow, were all fascinating.

Early works by Sibelius and Shostakovich prefaced each half of the programme. Rakastava (The Lover) is a three-piece suite scored for strings, triangle and timpani. It was originally written for a male-voice choir competition (!) when Sibelius was 28 but he returned to orchestrate it some 20 years later. How extraordinary that both Sibelius and Shostakovich’s early thoughts, pregnant pauses, feathery strings, abrupt endings in Sibelius and a biting sardonic wit in the case of the 21-year-old Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet (1925), should both pre-figure so precisely what was to come in their later works. Suffice it to say that Ashkenazy has these seldom performed scores in his bones and made the strongest case for them.

Alexey Stadler. Photograph: www.harrisonparrott.comElgar’s Cello Concerto is perhaps now the most familiar of all his works. There was no hint of routine in Stadler’s account, which combined soul and technique in perfect equilibrium and benefited hugely from being heard in Cadogan Hall’s intimate surroundings, the balances between soloist and orchestra falling into the most natural perspective. The deep melancholy of Elgar’s late masterpiece seems to speak directly to the Russian soul, rather as Chekhov’s plays do. In the opening movement Stadler initially adopted the most leisurely of paths but then sustained the tempo magnificently, catching the music’s dream-like otherworldly quality before exploding out of the traps into the scherzo, on top of its technical difficulties but also fully alive to its extraordinary whimsical volatility. The heart of the matter as ever was the Adagio, an elegy in which sorrow runs too deep for tears. The finale’s orchestral contribution was of interest. With a symphony orchestra it can seem bombastic, but here, with the brass and woodwinds embedded into the string sound and Stadler finding an almost Schumannesque delicacy in the passagework, it felt all of a piece with what had gone before. The epilogue, where we arrive full-circle, was deeply eloquent.

What is known as Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony is Rudolf Barshai’s remarkably effective amplification of the composer’s String Quartet No.8 (1960), one of four such works that the conductor arranged under this title. In its own way it is another – very different – elegy, but for a different war. At the time of its composition Shostakovich was in Dresden working on a film project but, deeply affected by the desolation around him, he wrote the String Quartet in a mere three days. Rather than Elgar’s withdrawal into an interior, contemplative world following World War One, Shostakovich’s response is anger, almost at times an unrestrained howl of pain subsiding eventually into the revolutionary song ‘Tormented by Grievous Bondage’. Led by the excellent Clio Gould, this was a remarkable performance played with total commitment. Shostakovich’s music can sound like so much sound and fury; this however was played with real venom, leaving one drained, all passion spent.

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