Philharmonia Ashkenazy Grimaud – RFH Farewell

Balakirev, orch. Liapunov
Islamey, Oriental Fantasy
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Mussorgsky, orch. Ashkenazy
Pictures at an Exhibition

Hélène Grimaud (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 21 June, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Parting is such sweet sorrow, so it is said. To judge from the tidal waves of emotion here one would have thought that this concert marked the end of the Royal Festival Hall rather than the final orchestral concert there before the 18-month closure for refurbishment. At the end, one lady had tears streaming down her cheeks and had to be comforted. Of course, given its iconic status at the centre of the UK’s musical life and our characteristic ineptitude when it comes to completing anything on time and within budget, it will hardly be surprising if 18 months turns into longer. Although not strictly comparable, quite why Wigmore Hall could be so satisfactorily refurbished in just three months whilst the Festival Hall requires 18 months and 10 times the budget is anybody’s guess. Mine would be that all was lost once committees of the ‘great and the good’ became involved.

Anyway, it was absolutely fitting that the Philharmonia Orchestra should have taken its leave under Vladimir Ashkenazy, a long-standing guest, and deserving of an honorary knighthood.

Liapunov’s orchestration of his teacher Balakirev’s finger-breaking piano work, Islamey, an ‘oriental fantasy’, was despatched with a characteristic combination of polish and elegance; playing of this finesse made the best possible case for this music. Incidentally, Liapunov wrote an orchestral tone poem called Hashish, which demands to be heard; smoking ban allowing.

Hélène Grimaud and Ashkenazy proved a combustible duo in Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto. This was an edge of the seat rendering, unpredictable but absorbing, the combination of musicians knowing this music from the inside and a soloist who is not only a virtuoso but also a “steel magnolia with a heart”. Grimaud has an exceptionally fluent left-hand and one found oneself responding to details normally glossed over; nor was her phrasing in any way conventional. Frequently it even felt as if she were re-imagining the score on the spot, such was her spontaneity. In the slow movement’s quieter moments she had the power to withdraw almost totally yet hold one on the very finest web of sound, whilst the finale was shot through with sudden, unexpected rushes of adrenaline as it darted forward impetuously. The accompaniment was everything one could have wished for, especially in the slow movement with glorious flute solos from Kenneth Smith and the ebb and flow of Rachmaninov’s characteristically sinuous string lines perfectly caught.

Ashkenazy’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition was more of a mixed bag, splendidly played though it was. Ashkenazy corrects some of the textual errors that crept into Ravel’s orchestration and although there are moments when his version sounds more rugged and authentically Russian, too often there is a degree of overkill as if one were being bludgeoned by the music. There are, though, moments of real success in the scoring – for instance, the chanting strings in ‘Great Gate of Kiev’, but hearing Ashkenazy’s version only renews admiration for Ravel’s extraordinary precision.

Imaginatively, as an encore, was the finale of Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony (No.45), the players drifting off stage one by one and eventually leaving the hall in total darkness before the audience’s rapid mass exodus to free champagne. The music continued, in the foyer, from Philharmonia musicians and from Grimaud and Ashkenazy as a piano duet.

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