MUSIC / EC listening: Meredith Oakes on Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Berlin RSO at the Proms

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The Independent Culture
THERE were crowds at the Proms for the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. Tame programmes might have been part of the attraction: Elgar and Beethoven's Ninth on Sunday; Mendelssohn, Stravinsky and Brahms on Monday. Not the new stuff that this orchestra, like the BBC SO, has a name for.

The agenda was not purely musical. The Choral Symphony was given under the banner of the European Arts Festival. The Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister attended; the authoritative line-up of soloists (Margaret Price, Martine Mahe, Jan Blinkhof, Kurt Moll) was strictly EC; the promenaders shouted 'oui' and 'non' across the floor at each other.

In this context the Berlin Radio Symphony, whose activities determinedly straddle East and West, was a statesmanlike choice: the orchestra of current European experience. It was remarkable in this respect, but not otherwise. There were fine woodwind players, and the strings were shapely and unified. If the brass sounded less convincing overall, Monday's encore, the Mastersingers overture, proved that they could do wonderful things sometimes.

Ashkenazy's strengths as a conductor reflect his strengths as a pianist: poise, clear colours, accuracy, flow. But there was no wildness; his rhythms were understated, his dynamics tended towards perpetual mezzoforte. In the Beethoven, he was brave enough to make the strange slow movement really quite slow, so that the trailing uneven threads of melody melted beautifully, not sounding gawky as they do when the tempo is skimped. There was little adventure in the rest of the piece, though: it floated discreetly, defying the laws of gravity which, with properly robust accent and contrast, would have sent the notes heroically pitching and tumbling. There was energy, there were fortissimi, but there was not much weight. The humanely articulate Kurt Moll was outstanding among the soloists, while the combined forces of the Brighton Festival Chorus and the London Symphony Chorus made the brightest, most incisive massed sound imaginable, and carried the day.

Excitement came on Monday in the person of Olli Mustonen, soloist in Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. Born in Helsinki, he plays with demonic sparkling force and is not at all the etiolated mild Scandinavian that his appearance suggests. Bursting into the opening processional Largo with extraordinary concentration, he at once established a crystalline focus that was maintained throughout.

Within the music's stately, swinging drive he revelled in a sea of cross accents and sub-currents, vivid and precise, the power of his attack complemented by the lightness and freedom of his legato playing. Such sustained, comprehensive intuition, such rhythm, and such fingers, are rarely found combined. There wasn't a grey moment: Stravinsky seemed genially present, an angel of invention lightly cloaked in mechanistic nonchalance.

The Brahms Second Symphony, closing the Monday concert, brought out Ashkenazy's good qualities. The middle movements became a bit soporific in their graceful benevolence, but there were clean lines, bright colours and open-hearted vivacity at the start and finish.

The finespun playing that this conductor can summon from the upper strings was shown to advantage in the Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream excerpts that opened Monday's programme. Elgar's Falstaff overture the night before seemed less well chosen: a personal, anti-official tone poem, full of odd, lopsided stage business carried out in a theatrical midnight hush. Ashkenazy's straightforward lyricism by no means covered all the angles.

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