Philharmonia Orchestra/Ashkenazy – 19 February

Borodin
Prince Igor – Overture
Prokofiev
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16
Debussy
Jeux – Poème Dansé
La mer – Three Symphonic Sketches

Arcadi Volodos (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 19 February, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This ambitious, imaginatively planned programme did not always come off – but how much better ambition than dull routine.

The overture to Prince Igor is substantial and surprisingly little played. The Philharmonia Orchestra has a real affinity for 19th-century Russian repertoire and generally plays it with polish and finesse. Under Ashkenazy there was much to please including a sensitively phrased horn solo from Nigel Black, typically warm string-playing, and a thrilling sprint to the finishing line.

The Prokofiev was everything one could have hoped for – and more. Whilst one may not want to hear Volodos in core classical repertoire, in this music, some of the most over-the-top piano-writing ever, he is well cast, his technique easily encompassing the most extreme demands, and he produces a beautiful sound throughout the instrument’s range. From the first movement’s sultry opening to the histrionics of the cadenza (the orchestra’s full-cry return sounding almost reticent in comparison), there was never an ugly sound. The ’perpetuum mobile’ scherzo was inflected and despatched with an insouciance that must drive other pianists to despair, whilst the finale’s more gargantuan passages were swallowed whole. When not playing Volodos sat impassively with his hands folded across his stomach like one who has just enjoyed a good meal. Ashkenazy, himself a great interpreter of this piece – I believe I first heard him play it nearly 40 years ago – provided the sort of accompaniment only possible when one has lived this work from the inside. Outstanding!

Sadly, although enthusiastically played, the second half was altogether less satisfactory. Jeux is one of Debussy’s most elliptical works in which at one and the same time nothing and everything happens and requires surgical precision. In place of pointillism, it here received a broad-brush approach and subtleties failed to register fully, which also compromised an over-excitable La mer – but for a different reason. Tempos were swift throughout and the performance’s problems were encapsulated in the very closing pages – instead of the music progressively building up to finally burst-forth in full-flood, because Ashkenazy had earlier driven the music so hard, frequently sub-dividing his beat and micro-managing each incident, the line had been interrupted and real tension had long-since evaporated.

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