Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy – Britten, Mozart & Mahler with Elizabeth Watts & Tamara Stefanovich

Quatre chansons françaises
Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K467
Symphony No.4

Elizabeth Watts (soprano)

Tamara Stefanovich (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 24 February, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Vladimir Ashkenazy. Photograph: Keith SaundersBookended by one of Benjamin Britten’s more remarkable juvenile creations and Mahler’s vision of heaven through the eyes of a child, this concert could well have been described as “Childhood Revisited”.

In The Turn of the Screw the character of Miles is disturbing because he is ‘knowing’ in a way alien to most children. There is also something alarming about Britten’s Quatre chansons françaises. Written at age 14 and exhumed for a posthumous first performance in 1980, Britten makes use of poems by Verlaine and Victor Hugo, hardly normal adolescent reading. If anyone thought Mendelssohn’s magical recreation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream remarkable at the age of 17, Britten’s third song, ‘L’enfance’ (Childhood), a mother stretched out on a bed dying whilst her child laughs and pipes happily outside is truly unnerving from a 14-year-old. Throughout the cycle Elizabeth Watts was outstanding; she brought sensitivity and security to this demanding music. Vladimir Ashkenazy and a reduced Philharmonia Orchestra accompanied with tact, with praise to Gordon Hunt’s plangent oboe solos in ‘Sagesse’ (Wisdom).

Tamara Stefanovich. Photograph: Frank Alexander RümmeleTamara Stefanovich was the antithesis of what had preceded. Seasoned Mozartean that he is, Ashkenazy brought the right springy touch to the opening ritornello but Stefanovich turned her opening flourish into an unstylistic cadenza, thereafter inappropriately hogging the limelight. Interplay is the great glory of Mozart’s piano concertos, even in a display piece like K467; for most of the time she could have been playing on another planet. The two proper cadenzas (the pianist’s?) were of unspeakable awfulness.

Mahler 4 was a joy. It’s a severe test for even the most technically endowed conductor, literal observance of the score’s myriad detailed markings frequently creating interpretative dead-ends. Ashkenazy succeeded largely through intuition and affection, each paragraph leading naturally to the next, markings like Wild and Schwungvoll noted but not overplayed. There were some stylish individual contributions, notably Kenneth Smith’s characterful woodland flute, Nigel Black’s horn subtly understated in the little cadenza at the close of the first movement and above all Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s re-tuned “Wie eine Fidel”, a constant spooky presence in the second-movement Ländler’s background. The flowing slow movement brought one slight miscalculation with the first of the three tempo changes (Andante) leading to the climax just too relaxed; however in keeping with Mahler’s injunction for “discretion” Ashkenazy found an elegant solution to the soprano ‘problem’, Elizabeth Watts sitting at the side of the stage and then threading her way unobtrusively through the musicians so that the final two movements were indivisible. She had exactly the right youthful voice for ‘Das himmlische Leben’, the final sentence – “There is no music on Earth to be compared with ours” – still had the power to bring a lump to the throat.

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