Philharmonia Orchestra/Ashkenazy – Shostakovich Babi Yar – Nobuyuki Tsujii plays Prokofiev

Piano Concerto No.3 in C, Op.26
Symphony No.13 in B flat minor, Op.113 (Babi Yar)

Nobuyuki Tsujii (piano)

Sergey Aleksashkin (bass)

Gentlemen of Philharmonia Voices

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Helen Pearce

Reviewed: 24 May, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Vladimir Ashkenazy. Photograph: Keith SaundersPartnering Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Vladimir Ashkenazy returned to familiar territory with the Philharmonia Orchestra, with whom he undertook the major Prokofiev and Shostakovich Under Stalin project in 2003.Stalin, though, was still emerging from the sidelines when, in 1921, Prokofiev composed his Third Piano Concerto in France, where he sought refuge from the post-revolutionary turmoil enveloping Russia. The concerto is a whirlwind of ideas. Nobuyuki Tsujii maintained a dizzying momentum, particularly in the outer movements. The constant changes in character and tempo which propel the music forward were, for the most part, deftly navigated by soloist and orchestra. (A feat which takes on a new dimension when one considers that Tsujii is blind.) However, Tsujii’s fortissimos lacked the depth of tone which, for all its panache, this music demands. Neither did the orchestral playing quite catch fire. While the second movement’s barbaric qualities were finely observed, I missed the underlying sense of humour.

Perhaps Ashkenazy had been saving his energy (or rehearsal time) for the symphony, for here the Philharmonia really came into their own. Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony sets five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and adds a solo bass and male chorus to the orchestral forces. The versatility of Sergey Aleksashkin, who is no stranger to this work, was particularly evident in the opening movement, a setting of ‘Babi Yar’. Yevtushenko’s poem commemorates the mass slaughter of Jews at this site by the Nazis before imagining other recent victims of anti-Semitic atrocities. In Aleksashkin’s performance, a sense of vulnerability rose out of the poised anger which characterises the opening music, as the sufferings of Anne Frank and an unnamed boy at Białystok are described. The orchestra relished the depth of emotion which Shostakovich brings to this setting. Kept at a simmer throughout the bass solos, the players fully let rip at the hair-raising climax prompted by the arrest of Anne Frank (“They’re breaking down the door! No! It’s the ice breaking!” – with Stalin’s Great Terror in living memory of much of the audience at this symphony’s 1962 premiere, these lines surely held a particular resonance).

‘In the Store’, a moving tribute to the women of the Soviet Union which lies at the heart of this symphony, lost some of its emotional intensity in the long, adagio passages. However, superb individual playing was much in evidence, most notably the tuba solo which emerges from the murky textures of the fourth movement. The magical flute theme of the finale, echoed later in the strings, provided a welcome and well-judged respite from the prevailing gloom. The contribution of the men of Philharmonia Voices was uniformly excellent.

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