Metamorphosen – Study for 23 solo strings
Concerto for oboe and small orchestra
Symphony No. 9 in E flat, Op.70

Gordon Hunt (oboe)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 9 May, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

All three of these works were composed in 1945 and offer a range of contrasts: between Richard Strauss himself in the memorial that is Metamorphosen and his beguiling if autumnal Oboe Concerto, and then with the kaleidoscopic, ambiguous Ninth of Shostakovich’s symphonies.

As part of a whistle-stop UK tour for the Philharmonia Orchestra and Vladimir Ashkenazy, this first of two London-base concerts began with an unsettled account of Metamorphosen, musically a ‘study’ for 23 solo strings and rich in counterpoint, and emotionally an outpouring of private grief for wartime destruction, the demise of cultural values, and Strauss’s view of the world, and being alive, in general, and made the more potent by joining hands, both musically and spiritually, with the ‘Funeral March’ of Beethoven’s Eroica.

From the outset of this performance, a sense of mourning was present, as was that of fading light come the close. In between Ashkenazy rather harried the music along, certainly emotional and not imposing anything that is not already in the music itself, and gratifyingly spontaneous, but a little more poise and burgeoning would have benefited Strauss’s evolving structure and allowed the players room for a little more expression; as it was there was no doubting the commitment with which this moving work was conveyed.

Reflective the Oboe Concerto may be, but it carries a touching eloquence too, one enlivened by Baroque decoration and by Mozartean clarity and allusions. Gordon Hunt, principal oboe of the Philharmonia Orchestra, gave a very affecting rendition, technically admirable, and with plaintive declaration and quiet intensity, with a beautifully meshing and tangible accompaniment from the orchestra of strings with pairs of flutes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, and a cor anglais. Hunt’s dexterity and grace were a joy, and this performance was in many ways a revelation.

Leaving aside what Stalin and the authorities expected from Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony (suffice it to say that they were disappointed), in canonic terms, Shostakovich’s ‘take’ on this significant number (in terms of symphony-composing) is a decided antithesis to it, a compact work in five short movements. Whether divertimento or burlesque, it’s no surprise that much can be read into this work (as Leonard Bernstein did once during a memorable Harvard lecture).

If Ashkenazy tends to focus on music as it is written, he unleashed here a veritable drama, an incisive first movement bristling with incident and a poignant slow movement. The helter-skelter scherzo crackled with electricity and the summoning intonation of three trombones against a pleading bassoon cut through the air. And if the finale seems to be of easygoing flippancy, there was here an omnipresent scurrying that sinisterly developed into crushing terror – at least that’s how it seemed as conducted by Ashkenazy who drove the music forward remorselessly, and in doing so revealed aspects of this work not usually encountered.

  • Philharmonia Orchestra/Ashkenazy concerts in Brighton (10 May), Norwich (12 May), London (13 May, Sibelius and Shostakovich) & Southend (14 May)
  • Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Philharmonia Orchestra information:
    Freephone 0800 652 6717

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