Philharmonia/Ashkenazy – 10 November

Manfred – Symphony in B minor after Byron, Op.58
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Voyevoda – Symphonic ballad, Op.78

Janine Jansen (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 10 November, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This was a concert of fond farewells, golden hellos and eloquent continuance. The memorial was for Yevgeny Svetlanov, who should have conducted this concert; his memory was well served through written tributes and in the music-making. The welcome was for Janine Jansen, who made a considerable impression. Vladimir Ashkenazy’s always-welcome boundless energy and warmth of personality brought wellbeing to the evening.

This was Svetlanov’s choice of music and soloist. It was good to hear one of Tchaikovsky’s lesser-known pieces (two if you agree that Manfred remains underrated). Had Tchaikovsky achieved his intention, then Voyevoda would be a footnote in his catalogue – he destroyed his score after the first performance but forgot about the orchestral parts. When heard in a scintillating performance, such as this one, Voyevoda emerges as one of Tchaikovsky’s most original pieces. In an incident-packed ten minutes, the listener is grabbed from the off with literally galloping ostinati. Tchaikovsky’s gift for evoking the magical and supernatural is apparent – some memorable writing for harps and celesta in combination – save that the story is a down-to-earth Pushkin-inspired one of a provincial governor (voyevoda) finding his wife with a previous lover. The governor orders her shot; instead the servant shoots the governor. The gunshot in this performance caught a few people out! Ashkenazy’s propulsion and voluble lyricism brought the music alive.

If one had to profile Janine Jansen on the strength of the first five minutes or so of tonight’s appearance, then it would be ’very talented, needs to find more tonal variety and freedom of expression, and be careful of too much legato swallowing detail’. She took a while to settle. When she did, with superb backing from the Philharmonia, woodwind peerless as ever, and a few encouraging smiles from Ashkenazy, Jansen blossomed to give a silky and unpretentious account that re-created the music on the spot. She did well with the cadenza – one of Tchaikovsky’s low-points – a few tremulous bars aside and went from strength to strength. The starlit slow movement was poetically done; the (uncut) ’Finale’ had both fire and expression. In an age where audiences are falling hook, line and sinker for (musical?) excess and contrivance, it’s good to find a musician winning through with natural personality and musicianship.

Manfred is one of Tchaikovsky’s supreme achievements – powerful and enchanted music. A symphony in four scenes (not movements) that is both thoughtfully constructed and flexible to programmatic motif (emotions and characterisation) and scenic description (mountains, fields and underground). The scoring is fantastic (not least the spectral scherzo – fairies and waterfalls). Ashkenazy conducted it with total conviction (from memory), alive to the drama and sensitive to such delights as the melody portraying Astarte, Manfred’s sister.

Much is made of Berlioz’s influence on Tchaikovksy in this music. Well, apart from the folk-instrument interlude in the pastoral slow movement – launched here with a ravishing oboe solo from Gordon Hunt – being reminiscent of Harold in Italy, there is little else so overt: like all great composers, whatever Tchaikovsky ’took’ he made his own. (The finale’s fugue seems to me based on that from Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue, K546, a thought that awaits seconding!)

Ashkenazy didn’t over-drive the bacchanal opening the last movement, preferring to articulate and build. While Svetlanov might have made a cut or two (not least the fugue), Ashkenazy gave us every note. Come Manfred’s redemption, the organ is introduced. This can be a nasty moment if the conductor has no discretion. No problem with Ashkenazy except that the trebly-sounding RFH organ was inappropriate; more subterranean heft was needed. I wonder if anyone will ever trust Tchaikovsky’s wish for the harmonium at this point. Although Ashkenazy could have eased the poignant final bars more than he did – endings are important, so too beginnings (this Manfred was raw, ripe and biting at the start) – the previous 55 minutes were marvellously alive and engrossing.

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