Music: Rough with the smooth

On the opening leg of an English and American tour at the Royal Festival Hall, London, Rob Cowan sees Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester turn a rocky start to a good finish
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We were offered two sides of a single coin by the Deutsches Symphonie- Orchester, one scuffed, the other gleaming bright. Vladimir Ashkenazy opened Dvork's Cello Concerto briskly, prosaically and with precious little individuality on Thursday. The big horn melody which dominates the first movement was disappointingly deadpan, though the clarinettist's response was notably sensitive and cellist Lynn Harrell's first entry freewheeling, bold and gravelly in tone.

Harrell is a bear of a man with an endearing platform personality. He strode onstage holding his cello above his head, settled quickly and reacted visibly to every bar of the long opening tutti. Eye-contact with the audience ensured two-way communication and the solo playing was big-hearted and outgoing throughout. Best was the yearning re-statement of the opening theme, halfway through the first movement, and the heart-rending coda, with its defiant final crescendo.

Not everyone was happy. At the end of the first movement, Ashkenazy's incredulous gaze traced two young members of the audience as they ambled self-consciously from the choir seats to the nearest exit. Not exactly encouraging.

Harrell's approach to the Concerto incorporated generous slides and a fair degree of phrasal freedom, but the orchestra was lacklustre. The strings were flimsy and ill-focused, whereas the brass were invariably too loud. The woodwinds sounded better (the lead flautist is something of a star), but the performances as a whole seemed more like a competent rehearsal.

To think that this was only the first lap of a tour that would cover the north and south of England and much of America... "They'll sound far more focused by the end of the tour," a leading record executive assured me. Fortunately, we didn't have to wait that long for an improvement.

Bernhard Hartog had led the Dvork Concerto, and the excellent Hans Maile (a fine soloist in his own right) led a swift, fiery account of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony. Here one sensed greater involvement all round. Ashkenazy had attended the work's Moscow premiere under the formidable Evgeny Mravinsky and, by his own admission, never dreamt that he would eventually conduct it himself.

The opening was lithe and curvaceous, the climaxes well gauged though rather lacking in weight. Fans of Mravinsky's various recordings will have missed those lightning inflections in the ferocious `Stalin' Scherzo, but the Allegretto generated blistering heat - especially in the manic repetitions of the composer's musical signature (the notational equivalent of his initials). It was a good performance, lacking only in subtlety and `big guns', but far more idiomatic than the Dvork Concerto.

The really good news is that Ashkenazy and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester have recently recorded Scriabin's intended magnum opus, his three-hour Mysterium, or "Final Act" - a `completion' by Alexander Nemtin that was 25 years in the making. "It's like a massive film score," I was told, a quasi-religious act intended to unite all the arts and a potential New Age-style blockbuster. It is scheduled for release some time next year.

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