Philharmonia Orchestra – Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts Britten & Shostakovich with Sol Gabetta / John Zorn Music of Today

John Zorn
Angelus Novus
For Your Eyes Only*

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Matthew Coorey*

Death in Venice, Op.88 – Suite [arr. Steuart Bedford]
Cello Concerto No.2 in G, Op.126
Symphony No.15 in A, Op.141

Sol Gabetta (cello)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 21 February, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

John Zorn. Photograph: Bruno BollaertAs a style-and genre-crossing musician bar none, it is perhaps surprising that John Zorn (60 this year) had not featured previously in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s early-evening Music of Today series – but, in her second season as its Artistic Director, Unsuk Chin made good the omission with this short yet pertinent coupling of two of his most engaging works for ‘classical’ forces. Through his combining rationalist modernism and mystical Judaism, the philosopher Walter Benjamin has attracted the attention of numerous post-war composers – but few, if any, have come up with so succinct yet potent embodiment of his thinking as Zorn in the wind octet Angelus Novus (1993). The eponymous watercolour by Paul Klee inspired one of Benjamin’s defining essays, whose reflections on the gradual absorbing and hence understanding of sacred images – be they visual or textual – is represented here by five brief and diverse movements in which outwardly conflicting ideas are finally brought together in a finale which does not so much resolve their distinctions as transcend them altogether.

From the nominally sacred to the avowedly secular: For Your Eyes Only (1989) might take its title from the (mediocre) James Bond film of that name, but its deeper inspiration lies in the startlingly inventive cartoon scores by Carl Stalling that anticipate musical post-modernism by at least two generations. Not that the anarchic juxtaposition of ideas within Zorn’s single-movement ‘chamber symphony’ is in any sense random or unmotivated; indeed, as this piece unfolds, its most audible attribute is the subtly varied repetition of material such as intensifies towards a potent culmination, before subsiding into the plaintive melancholy that has gradually and almost imperceptibly taken hold of the work as a whole. The admirably prepared as well as finely attuned performances only enhanced one’s appreciation of this singular yet hardly inapproachable music. Zorn has written numerous pieces for orchestra – perhaps the Philharmonia will build on this auspicious first step and programme one.

In the ‘main’ concert, coupling Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto with his Fifteenth Symphony makes such sense that it’s surprising that it’s not done more frequently, making for a tempting prospect – the more so as it solved the conundrum of what to commence with, given the Russian composer left no late orchestral piece of comparable stature.

Britten wrote very little for orchestra during his maturity such that, despite not being an original work, the Suite from his final opera Death in Venice (1973) that Steuart Bedford arranged a decade later slots seamlessly into his output. Proceeding in almost chronological fashion, its 25 minutes are a perfect summary of the stage-work’s musical and emotional concerns. The seven continuous sections weave the main motifs – whether associated with Aschenbach, Tadzio or Venice – into an organic and cumulative whole that benefitted, for the most part, from Vladimir Ashkenazy’s incisive direction; though even adept playing could not hide a certain thinness of string tone that a few more desks might have alleviated.

Sol Gabetta. Photograph: Uwe ArensTime was when Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto (1966) was rarely revived – its speculative tone harder to grasp then that of its more varied predecessor – though a later generation of soloists began to tease out its enigmatic substance: a process to which Sol Gabetta is making a notable contribution. She plumbed the depths of the Largo’s restless eloquence, summoning a rapt response from its most inward passages while not playing down the vehemence of the central section where the soloist is cowed by an implacable series of bass drum strokes before returning to its initial soul-searching. The later movements are both designated Allegretto – the former as tensile and compressed as the latter, launched by fanfares on horns and percussion, is discursive and oblique. If the interplay was at first a little approximate, there was little to fault once the finale was underway – Gabetta underlining the capricious changes of mood while Ashkenazy pointed up the orchestral response, with its furtive percussion ostinatos, on the way to a bitter climax and tensely resigned close. A memorable account, then, which confirmed Gabetta as one of the finest current exponents of this most fascinating among Shostakovich concertos. Heartening, too, that the audience so appreciated her efforts – she returned for an unlikely encore in the guise of Pablo Casals’s Song of the Birds, with its sparing yet highly soulful accompaniment for four cellos.

Vladimir Ashkenazy. Photograph: Keith SaundersShostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony (1971), if hardly a rarity these days, remains a difficult work to bring off. Ashkenazy set an almost ideal tempo for the opening Allegretto – its interplay of William Tell quotations and serial polyphony drawn into a cohesive whole, yet with the last degree of desperation missing from its central climax. The Adagio was finely done, not least its probing cello soliloquies and ominous trombone processionals that bring about the searing climax – though this, as also the desolate recollection of earlier ideas, was a little too matter of fact. Ashkenazy was right to take the third movement as an intermezzo rather than scherzo, its deadpan humour more potent for being played out in earnest. Performances of this work most often lose focus in the finale and, while Ashkenazy duly steered a secure course through its dense web of allusions and inferences, there was an audible lack of grip in the central passacaglia’s restrained though remorseless accumulation towards a climax that was neither sufficiently seismic nor, in the corrosive dissonance which remains in its wake, unnerving. Tempos were for the most part well judged, yet the conductor’s determination to reinforce the elusiveness of the last pages left them feeling insubstantial, even provisional in manner. Shostakovich may have ended his symphonic cycle in quietness, but there is no sense of half-close as the music bids its listeners farewell.

Long-term attendees of Philharmonia Orchestra concerts have been treated to some memorable accounts of this work – above all, that by Kurt Sanderling in his final appearance with this orchestra some twelve years ago. If the present performance was far from being its equal, Ashkenazy’s sympathy for and insight into this perennially fascinating piece could not be gainsaid.

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