Reviewed: 8 December, 2011 Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
In recent years the Philharmonia Orchestra has played Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony for Mackerras, Maazel and quite a lot for Esa-Pekka Salonen. Here it was the turn of Vladimir Ashkenazy. He brought typical honesty and enthusiasm to this lively performance that ultimately lacked distinction and identification. The slow opening was a little tentative if not dreamy enough even when settled, the ensuing ‘Passions’ driven, but not by fantasy, and with rubato not always unanimous. The second-movement ‘Waltz’, without the ad lib cornet solo (probably wise: it goes on a bit), was somewhat suave if a little foursquare, two harps being adequate even if the extravagant Berlioz would have liked more. The ‘country scene’ was distinguished by Jill Crowther’s eloquent and soulful cor anglais solo, distantly answered by Gordon Hunt’s oboe, Ashkenazy treating the movement to rapt breadth and contrasting volatility; the closing ‘thunder’ was well-managed by four timpanists – battling it out with some ill-mannered coughers. You should have heard the hubbub that erupted when the music finished! Ashkenazy looked perturbed. He then sold ‘March to the Scaffold’ short, and not just through ignoring the repeat of the opening section (the first movement was ‘complete’ in this respect). It was too fast (Gardiner and Boulez convince a much-more deliberate tempo, the one that Berlioz seems to have wanted) and trombones over-rasped, such schoolboy sounds soon palling. The finale shrieked and cackled as a decent gathering of Witches should, the placed-backstage bells (which had heads in the Choir seats turning) clanged but not darkly enough and what seemed an attempt at overtones sounded more like a technical fault. In the rampaging final bars the cauldron bubbled and pointed hats and broomsticks were to the fore – but not enough the piccolos.
In the first half, the opening movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was middle-of-the-road in pacing, leaning to old-fashioned spaciousness; expectant and poised. Valeriy Sokolov (looking not much like the photograph of him we’ve used!) was admirably poised in his first appearance, maintaining tone in the highest register while cultivating sweet lyricism but not afraid to mix in some strong accents. The movement’s progress did become a little humdrum though, if enlivened by splendid oboes and bassoons. If the slow movement dragged its meditation and the finale was rather earnest, it was in the cadenzas that Sokolov shone. The finale’s example belonged more in a Paganini concerto, but in (I believe) Kreisler’s for the first movement (we weren’t told) Sokolov impressed with his ‘stopping’ and generous bow strokes. At other points his lack of overt demonstration was laudable.
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