I was indisposed over the weekend so I wasn’t able to do a write-up of the concert I attended at St David’s Hall on Friday evening, featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy in a programme of all-Russian music. Ashkenazy is of course best known as a pianist, but he has in recent years increasingly appeared in public performances as a conductor, apparently preferring to confine his piano playing to the recording studio. I’d never seen him in the flesh before and was surprised when this rather diminutive man bounded onto the stage and, hardly pausing for breath, started the concert. He’s obviously not one for hanging about.
First item on the menu was the Overture to the Opera Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin. At least the piece is attributed to Borodin, but no trace of the original score has ever been found; the piece as performed nowadays was entirely reconstructed from memory by Alexander Glazunov. It’s a rather conventional overture for the time, consisting of a sort of fast-forward of some of the outstanding themes and musical motifs that occur in the Opera.
In case you didn’t know Borodin was only a part-time composer. His day job was as a Professor of Organic Chemistry. He also died quite young – at the age of 53 – suffering a heart attack at a fancy dress ball.
Given is relatively short life and his occupation with other matters, Borodin didn’t write all that much music, but what survives is of generally very high quality, and this piece is no exception. A very nice warm-up for the larger works to come.
(Yes, I say Borodin was “quite young” at the age of 53 because that’s how old I am…)
Next up was one of the most familiar concert pieces of the entire classical repertoire, the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Certainly the spectacular opening, with its fanfare-like introduction followed by a dramatic string theme supported by huge chords from the piano, must be one of the best-known introductions to a classical work. It’s curious though that the theme that gives it such an imposing start is not heard anywhere else in the concerto, though what follows is hugely absorbing and entertaining, if a bit theatrical for some tastes. It’s not too theatrical for me, I hasten to add. I love it.
(Coincidentally, Tchaikovsky also died at the age of 53.)
The soloist for the performance was Alice Sara Ott who played with great verve and virtuosity. It’s a piece that calls for some muscular playing, and despite her slender build, Alice Sara Ott was up tot the task. She practically lifted herself up off the stool on a number of occasions to generate enough downward force on the keys.
After the interval we had Symphony Number 1 in D Minor by Sergei Rachmaninov. The first performance of this work in 1897, conducted by Glazunov with the composer in the audience, was a complete disaster and the piece was so badly received that Rachmaninov refused to allow it to be published (and even destroyed the score). It wasn’t until 1945 that the orchestral parts were found and the symphony reconstructed that it was performed again. I think it’s a very satisfying symphonic work. Although ostensibly in D Minor it spends most of the time in major keys (F major in the second movement, B♭ major in the third, and D major in the finale). Like all great symphonies it takes the listener on a journey through a very varied soundscape – and times wistful and and at others exuberant. I particularly enjoyed the lengthy coda at the end of the 4th movement.
I really don’t know why this work was so savaged by the critics when it was first performed, although Rachmaninov laid the blame firmly at the conductor’s feet. I think he would have appreciated last night’s concert a lot more than