The twenty-year-old Rachmaninov’s The Rock was inspired by two melancholy literary works – the title comes from a touching poem by Lermontov and the story was drawn from Chekhov’s somewhat gloomy tale, On the Road. Certainly the music is launched darkly but Rachmaninov expands it, displaying extraordinary skill in using a large orchestra. However, the music’s structure is so loose that The Rock is best listened to as a study in adventurous orchestration; to relate it to the complex story does not help. Vladimir Ashkenazy has notable ability to extract colourful sound, especially when conducting late-romantic music. Here he revelled in instrumental detail in the forceful, fully-scored passages. The orchestration provides interesting sounds, notably when many of the woodwind melodies are led by piccolo. There were also moments of hushed stillness which had great dramatic effect.
Esther Yoo, who made her London début with the Philharmonia in 2014 (with Lorin Maazel), has toured with the orchestra and Ashkenazy so it is hardly surprising that they were entirely at one in Sibelius’s Violin Concerto (which they have recorded for Deutsche Grammophon). The opening was magical, the violin rising gently from the hushed strings, as if emerging from a Nordic forest. This was a refined and lovingly phrased reading of the Concerto from a violinist showing great strength at climactic moments where her command of her instrument’s lower register was well evident, and intonation was immaculate. The manner in which she swept into the first-movement cadenza was masterful. There was also great subtlety of phrasing – especially in the slow movement, and Yoo’s unhurried gentleness at quieter moments in the polonaise-like Finale was impressive.
Ashkenazy took a very subjective view of Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony. It is acceptable in such music for a musician to be flexible with tempo, but there were times when this bordered on eccentricity. The most disturbing example was in the rising repeated melody, first announced by cellos about two minutes into the first movement and later frequently restated. It begins with a ten-note phrase and Ashkenazy slowed the last three notes to an extraordinary degree, entirely changing the nature of the theme. It is difficult to understand why this intervention was made because apart from the return of the tune on cellos or violins, the phrasing by the other instruments was in-tempo throughout. This inconsistency was very obvious when in the recapitulation the melody is given to a flute and played entirely ‘straight’. This was not the only ‘personal’ touch, yet in the fullest-scored sections Ashkenazy drew utmost power while still revealing every strand.
The central movement is set in an unusual fashion in a form also favoured by Franz Berwald (in ‘Sinfonie singulière’, for example), where the slow movement surrounds the Scherzo. Lush phrasing enhanced the outer sections while in the Scherzo he adopted a very rapid tempo, underlining forward impetus rather than the solidity of the march-like rhythm. There can be no complaint about the exciting nature of the Finale and the fugue that appears late-on drew brilliant playing from the strings. However, the subsequent reflective section was taken extremely slowly and the drive of the music was put aside making the furious pace of the coda all the more surprising. There was much to admire in this reading but somehow Rachmaninov’s great wealth of themes was not drawn together convincingly.