Pohjola’s Daughter, Op.49
Piano Concerto No.2 in F, Op.102
Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat, Op.107
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105

Steven Osborne (piano)

Steven Isserlis (cello)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 13 May, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

This was the first Philharmonia Orchestra concert I have attended since it transferred its South Bank base due to the refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall. It is disappointing to report that, on this occasion, the sonority of the orchestra was not that which one has become accustomed to hearing from these players in other venues. There was an ‘edge’ to the string sound, the brass were strident and the timpani thudded in an unpleasant manner.

In any event, there were other reservations that were causes for dissatisfaction. I’m not at all sure that the ordering of the programme was well enough thought through. In particular, the placing of the Sibelius symphony after the cello concerto did not work.

The sense of hesitancy and awkwardness in the opening bars of Pohjola’s Daughter was not encouraging, and Vladimir Ashkenazy seemed to find difficulty in ‘shaping’ this music. Contributions from the woodwind and harp could be enjoyed, but the coarse-sounding brass playing was unwelcome, as was the curiously ‘choppy’ effect of the conducting. One wondered how well the conductor knew the score, as a cue was given to trumpets and trombones when, in fact, the horns alone were due to play – which they did. In all, Sibelius’s evocative tone poem was not given a performance worthy of it.

Steven Osborne proved to be a potent exponent of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto. Dating from 1957, it is that rare thing in the composer’s later output – a largely cheerful and affirmative work, though there are moments of tension in the first movement which were not passed over in this performance. There are many tricky corners in this score, which orchestra, conductor and soloist negotiated with ease. The outer movements had vivacity and drive, whilst the central slow movement was touching without being overly – and inappropriately – sentimental. I would have welcomed a more hushed string sound here. I did not recognise the jazz-tinged encore that Osborne played.

After the interval, Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto was given less successfully. The main problem was the inaudibility of the soloist in the more powerful passages in the first and last movements. But even at the opening of the concerto, Steven Isserlis was curiously unassertive, whereas a more forthright attack is surely called for. However, the brooding slow movement and the tortuously difficult cadenza were extremely well played, with Isserlis apparently more comfortable in such passages. Indeed, the duet between celesta and cello was chilling. In the finale, it was disconcerting to see very vigorous cello playing, but hearing very little consequent sound. There was some fine woodwind playing again – and a superb horn.

As with Pohjola’s Daughter, Ashkenazy’s view of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony failed to convince. In fact, this was everything Sibelius conducting shouldn’t be – restless, fidgety and fussing. This noble music was not enabled to unfold and evolve naturally, and so there was no sense of climaxes being striven for – they merely occurred forcefully.

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