To start the year, Parisian music lovers were treated to a small but highly delectable Tchaikovsky homage when the Philharmonia Orchestra under their Conductor Laureate Vladimir Ashkenazy appeared for two consecutive nights at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. Following the traditional setup of overture, concerto and symphony, both programs consisted of a trio of Tchaikovsky masterpieces, spanning with Romeo and Juliet (1869, rev. 1880) and The Voyevoda (1890) the majority of his creative activity. The presence of two sterling Russian artists, Evgeny Kissin and Vadim Repin, luminous soloists in respectively the First Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto, added considerably to the attraction of this mini Tchaikovsky fest.
The man to keep everything in good order, though, was Vladimir Ashkenazy. Ashkenazy established a favorable relationship with the Philharmonia early on in his parallel career as conductor. At 76 he remains an extremely vivid personality. His boyish bravura on the rostrum totally belies his age and experience – and contrasts with his relative calmness as a pianist. He comes running on stage and seems always ready for a joke with some of the orchestra members. His Tchaikovsky evidently flows from the heart (as his many recordings throughout the years have proven as well) but is now brought with a disarming sincerity as well as gentle authority. Clearly knowing the music inside out, Ashkenazy nonetheless keeps using a score, even if he barely seems to look at it and is frequently seen turning pages to catch up. These Paris concerts also found the Philharmonia Orchestra on tremendous form, utterly responsive and offering a Tchaikovsky brimming with life, drama and color.
Most of the pieces on offer may have been familiar Tchaikovsky, yet for the first night Ashkenazy chose to open with the rarely heard symphonic ballad, The Voyevoda, one of his final works and one that narrowly escaped destruction by the ever self-critical composer after the premiere. A fantastic, compelling 10-minutes piece which by its inventive and colorful orchestration (introducing the celesta in a symphonic work) and strong evocative power, begs to be better known. Based on an Adam Mickiewicz poem, it recounts the peculiar tale of a warlord returning home to catch his wife with a lover. When ordering a servant to shoot his adulterous spouse, the servant guns down the voyevoda instead.
Ashkenazy opted for a rather slow tempo in the opening galloping ostinati, preferring clarity and detail, fully capitalizing on the diversity of the Philharmonia strings sections. The menacing crescendi acquired tremendous power this way, topped by the brass and timpani, while the lyrical interlude with the fine bass clarinet from Laurent Ben Slimane and the cor anglais from Jill Crowther created a strongly ambiguous feel totally apt within the narrative context. The infernal trombones in the final pages signaling the death of the voyevoda were properly chilling.
The more famous Romeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasy equally made a strong concert opener on the second evening, although arguably by its over-familiarity even harder to bring off in a convincing way than The Voyevoda. Yet, this reading left little to desire. Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia secured a refined sonority without giving in on the work's expressive power. The different episodes were characterized with great skill, but I hadn't heard the love theme evoked with such tenderness and growing ardor in a long time – and what magnificent playing from the altos and especially Crowther's cor anglais.
On the first night, Evgeny Kissin gave a take-home performance of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. The genius of Kissin may well be that he manages to make you hear the music for the first time (which in the case of this concerto is really hard to believe), without falling into excesses or eccentricities. His focus and unwavering clarity, the quality of his phrasing and dynamic and expressive shading were simply astonishing. Surely, he uses a fair share of inflections to work his magic, but here was the Tchaikovsky First alright, sounding fresher and more forward-looking than most, teeming with extraordinary detail and imaginative touches, such as the lightly buzzing semiquaver passages in the outer movements. Ashkenazy was a particularly sympathetic accompanist. Having played the concerto himself, he evidently knows all its secrets from both sides, soloist and conductor. The balance between piano and orchestra was impeccable and every shade of color that Kissin found in his part were matched by the orchestra.
Vadim Repin had a bit of an edgy start in the Violin Concerto, though once settled he quickly went for gold as well. As with Kissin one had the feeling here was an old master returning to a beloved work with a fistful of fresh insights. As we know, both are only in their early forties, yet they have been in the business for some thirty years and recorded these respective concertos on a couple of occasions throughout their career. Both are acclaimed virtuosos, who now come armed with even more vibrant musicality. Repin shaded the sheer virtuosity with dignified lyricism; the spirit of the work was there just as much in its grand gestures as in its intimacy and melancholy. Even if it would be hard to label Repin's musicianship as ostentatious, the bravura passages were dispatched with effortless panache. The slower moments acquired with his magnificent pianissimi a dreamlike intensity. The beautiful Canzonetta (featuring the ravishing flute of Samuel Coles) was a case in point, but also the outer movements, caringly supported by Ashkenazy, offered plenty of expressive contrasts.
The symphonies (Four and Five) capping each program were magnificently performed. The intensity and variety of the Philharmonia strings proved a constant delight, as did the stylish woodwinds – notably Mark van de Wiel's clarinet and Samuel Coles's flute. Impressive work also from the brass and timpani during the many climactic moments. Tempos were always deftly chosen and Ashkenazy preserved this finely judged orchestral balance and transparency which made the previous shorter works such a pleasure. (Qualities not to be dismissed easily, considering that only a week earlier at a performance of Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty by the Paris Opera Ballet, maestro Fayçal Karoui must have thought it was a concerto for horns.)
As was clear by now, Ashkenazy's Tchaikovsky is anything but one-dimensional. With a suppleness of phrasing and expressive power he intuitively channeled the intense emotional contrasts into a convincing whole. The outer movements of both the symphonies were particularly exciting, with towering but never tasteless climaxes in the finales. While the bigger picture was never lost, Ashkenazy secured an astonishing amount of orchestral detail and found moments of shattering beauty, if not a bitter tenderness, even in these scores brimming with passion and torment. The key theatrical background of Tchaikovsky's writing was rendered with great sensitivity, as in the first movement of the Fourth Symphony opening with this melancholic Moderato con anima developing as a valse triste, or more subtly even in the Fifth, where the second theme of the first movement with its impression of a slow waltz emerged with a particular tender luminosity from the somber opening. Katy Woolley's affectionate (and for once really dolce) horn solo in the second movement Andante cantabile of the Fifth was another example. The interplay with Van de Wiel's clarinet and Gordon's Hunt's oboe setting the movement in motion was pure magic.
At the end of the second concert, acknowledging the rapturous reception by the Champs Elysées public, Askhenazy came forward and announced in excellent French an encore. He asked the audience whether they were familiar with the Barcarolle from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons? Several people eagerly replied they did and Ashkenazy led the Philharmonia into a ravishingly orchestrated version of the Barcarolle (June). In a last beautiful gesture he introduced the Philharmonia's violinist Julian Milone as the arranger of the piece.
Here was a superb homage to Tchaikovsky, but just as much to a Philharmonia Orchestra in superlative doing and a trio of gifted artists. They sure don't come any better than that.
Copyright © 2014, Marc Haegeman