Cockaigne (In London Town) – Concert Overture, Op.40
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55
James Ehnes (violin)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 31 January, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
However evergreen and exquisitely crafted Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor is, it seems to be in danger of over-exposure (whereas the one in D minor rarely gets aired); which takes nothing away from James Ehnes’s sweet-toned and technically immaculate performance, which was deftly and sympathetically accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Ehnes’s playing was richly expressive and discriminatingly variegated, time-taken with the first movement, the cadenza musically integrated into the whole, and the slow movement avoiding stasis and false sentiment. The finale though, as so often, was something of a scramble; too fast and snatched at. Ehnes offered a Paganini Caprice (No.16) as a showy encore.
Vladimir Ashkenazy is no stranger to Elgar’s music; some while ago he conducted Falstaff at the BBC Proms (Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra) and, more recently, “The Dream of Gerontius” in Rome and Symphony No.2 in Sydney, and not forgetting Enigma Variations with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Ashkenazy has also conducted Anthony Payne’s elaboration of Elgar’s sketches for Symphony No.3 (Czech Philharmonic, Prague Spring Festival) and has now arrived at the First Symphony.
Opening this afternoon concert though was Cockaigne Overture, given a sprightly and affectionate account, somewhat breathless at times as well as being the wrong side of rowdy, and although some passages yielded affectingly others were glossed over for their full significance.
This hardly prepared for a remarkably fine account of the First Symphony, which drew from Ashkenazy a personal yet idiomatic response – heartfelt, grandly expressive, quite dark, and with a Slavic intensity that seemed wholly apt. Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra (which has played this great score in recent seasons under knights Roger Norrington, Andrew Davis and Charles Mackerras), brought malleability to a reading that found the music’s ebb and flow, and its reverie and regret, without denuding symphonic impulse, the first movement expounded on a large scale, followed by a fiery scherzo, then a slow movement that revealed its soul in the most poignant terms and crossed into territory that cannot be expressed in words. Ashkenazy dug deep into the emotional turmoil that this music evinces, making the finale a true resolution, something of an exorcism, a performance that was absorbing, moving and exhilarating, and sadly to remain a treasured memory given that no microphones (be they from the BBC or the Philharmonia) were present to capture what turned out to be a rather special outing for this noblest of symphonies.