Philharmonia Orchestra – New Season (30 September)

Scarlatti orch. Shostakovich
Pastorale & Capriccio (Two sonatas arr. for wind ensemble, Op.17)
Tchaikovsky
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Shostakovich
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 30 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This opening concert of the Philharmonia’s new season found the orchestra a little rough and ready at the start – rather like Harry Potter’s boarders returning for a new term at Hogwarts – but it improved dramatically as the concert proceeded. To be fair, orchestra and conductor had just returned from an extended tour of Australia, Taiwan and Singapore.

It opened with a rarity, Shostakovich’s arrangements, made in 1928, of two Scarlatti keyboard sonatas for a Mozart-sized wind band augmented by piccolo, trumpets, a lone trombone and timpani – quite a shock when one is used to hearing this music played by the likes of Horowitz – and reinforced the impromptu air, almost catching the audience (who were clearly expecting the rest of the orchestra to turn up) unawares as Ashkenazy charged onto the platform and launched into the Pastorale. In both pieces the satirical echoes of Stravinsky’s take on Italian baroque composers, Pulcinella, written nearly a decade earlier, were clear to hear, especially in the Capriccio with its trombone slides; however, the addition of the piccolo also gave a piquancy more characteristic of Shostakovich.

The Tchaikovsky concerto has sometimes been described as a battle royal between soloist and orchestra. On this occasion the piano came out on top. This was a heavyweight performance, so grand on occasions that it risked reminding one of the late great Gerard Hoffnung’s “Concerto Popolare”, an inimitable parody of popular piano concertos. At the outset Bronfman’s playing was over-emphatic and the orchestra’s response scrappy. As the piece progressed, things improved with a notably poetic lead into the cadenza and some virtuoso playing from Bronfman in the rapid interlude of the slow movement, in which Kenneth Smith was a sensitive flautist. Bronfman can deliver cascades of double octaves with incredible force but there seemed little give-and-take or communication between him, Ashkenazy and the orchestra.

Shostakovich Five was a performance of a completely different order. Despite his ever-youthful appearance, Ashkenazy is, amazingly, one of our last direct performing links with the composer. He feels this music passionately and his intuition carries him triumphantly through. Other conductors may negotiate this music’s corners with greater subtlety but Ashkenazy feels it first hand. At a key moment in the slow movement there is the merest moment’s pause, violas play open thirds with maximum roughness and force, the cellos lament at the top of their register and below the basses rasp. Beyond a certain point this cannot be rehearsed, only felt. One has seldom heard it more effective than here.

Elsewhere there were a few rough edges – Christopher Warren-Green’s violin solo in a suitably rugged ’Allegretto’ second movement threatened to derail (but how characterful it was); far better this than anodyne perfection. Above all the performance had a sweep and intensity which carried it through all four movements, the apotheosis taken quite swiftly and with just the right amount of hollow conviction. Having first heard this music, as a teenager, live with Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic in Edinburgh, 43 years ago, it was inspiring to have one’s adolescent enthusiasm rekindled.

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