Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Op.43 Overture
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Joshua Bell (violin)
Klara Ek (soprano)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 6 March, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Since its Royal Festival Hall concert with Vladimir Ashkenazy on 1 March, the Philharmonia Orchestra has been ‘on the road’ with him. Not a tour, rather it’s been a round of constant travelling between the musicians’ homes and various locations – Manchester, Bristol, Basingstoke and Cardiff. Not a night off for these ‘real’ musicians who have only their own consummate skills with which to make music (no miming and, thankfully, no amplification). Thus, the Philharmonia Orchestra arrived at the Royal Festival Hall to play this programme for the fourth time of asking in as many days (Manchester was two-thirds of the 1 March concert plus Joshua Bell in the Mendelssohn); any hint of tiredness or being on auto-pilot was never displayed. Indeed, the Beethoven overture began imposingly, the slow introduction richly moulded, and the allegro fizzed along irrepressibly.
Joshua Bell, playing the Mendelssohn for the fifth time in five days, gave a reading of technical bravado, and of affection, but it was all rather arch and applied. Bell’s own first-movement cadenza is no substitute for the integrated one that the original soloist Ferdinand David composed, and while one can admire Bell’s professionalism and be grateful that his ‘throbbing’ sound was less apparent here, and applaud his lack of indulgence (phrases were shapely), there was little that was spontaneous and ‘of the moment’ (save for an unintended pizzicato that resounded like a cork flying from a bottle of champagne!). The greater pleasures came from the orchestra in its lightness of touch, sparkling detail and freshness of response.
Ashkenazy then conducted a generous account of Mahler 4. The first movement, perfectly paced in its deliberation, allowed an integration of episodes as well as ideally modulated increases in dynamics and emotion. This movement can be more contrasting, and more nightmarish; this wasn’t Ashkenazy’s way and was quite convincing on its own terms. Some filigree detail in the cellos was brought out in both a surprising and pertinent way. Following a rather underplayed (if, again, perfectly paced, swift) second movement in terms of devilish violin solos (Alexander Janiczek may have had his second fiddle tuned up a tone but he played it all too beautifully), the Adagio proved especially successful, and here, as elsewhere, Christopher Cowie’s oboe-playing was especially distinctive.
Ashkenazy’s flowing tempo and his marked changes of pace were unerringly judged, the movement being rapturous, pensive and radiant. Indeed, throughout, Ashkenazy innately caught the intimate scale of this symphony (and was rather ‘against’ the “massive” conception and “huge” slow movement detailed in the programme note, misnomers in the context of Mahler’s other symphonies). In the vocal finale (erroneously described as a “song” in the SBC’s monthly magazine), Klara Ek was delightfully poised and communicative. Although her top notes were occasionally dubious, her unforced narrative had a real story-telling quality to it. Ashkenazy could have underlined more just how disruptive is the return of material from the first movement, but he gauged the lulling to silence with sureness and his static pose for the concluding silence worked a treat.
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