Philharmonia / Ashkenazy / Osborne / Isserlis, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Tuesday 16 May 2006
Enclosing two of Shostakovich's concertos between two symphonic scores of Sibelius may not seem the most obvious programming, so different are the sound-worlds of the composers. Yet Schoenberg, who liked neither, was prepared to concede: "I feel they have the breath of symphonists" - meaning the stamina to sustain long, complex structures. And, in the event, this concert under the volatile baton of Vladimir Ashkenazy balanced up well.
Or, as well as the Queen Elizabeth Hall would allow. The stage is narrow for a full orchestra; even with slightly reduced strings, the unavoidable placing of the woodwind rather far back meant they had some difficulty in penetrating the sound-mass, especially in the low-formation wind writing Sibelius loved. Perhaps that is why Ashkenazy pitched into the symphonic poem Pohjola's Daughter at the outset, and the concluding Symphony No 7 in C, rather precipitately.
Certainly, one would have liked more brooding mystery at the start of the one, a more marmoreal rising from the depths in the other. Once under way, however, these proved genuinely exciting readings - more brash than subtle in texture, perhaps, but gaining a tremendous impetus in the tone poem and an overwhelming intensity at the symphony's turning points - that dark plunge through the raging torrents at its centre, those exalted heights in the strings near the end.
Of the two Shostakovich items, the Cello Concerto No 1 got off to a less than incisive start. Steven Isserlis appeared to be having to work hard to project much tone. With a somewhat untidy accompaniment from Ashkenazy, the opening movement seemed more hectic than laconic. Things went better later, with an especially memorable fade-out to the slow movement.
The Second Piano Concerto, whose perky material Shostakovich composed for his young pianist son Maxim, could also have done at times with crisper accompaniment. But one was so transfixed by Steven Osborne's lucid, vivacious pianism - immaculate in technique, touching in the more reflective moments - that it hardly mattered.
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