Does conducting Rachmaninov hold the secret to eternal youth? It’s a plausible reason for Vladimir Ashkenazy’s springy demeanour, the conductor light footed on the podium as he directed the Philharmonia in music by the composer with whom he is perhaps most closely associated.
We glimpsed both light and shade from two of Rachmaninov’s most impressive symphonic works, beginning in the murky depths of The Isle Of The Dead, and ending with the unbuttoned exuberance of the Third Symphony. In between was a fiery performance of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, perhaps surprisingly the oldest work in the programme, dating from 1904.
The Isle of the Dead, wrongly listed as if it was one of the composer’s final works, is Rachmaninov’s response to Bcklin’s macabre painting. The darkly hued score calls on the whole, from top to bottom, to paint an uneasy picture of the boat heading towards the terrible island of the subject. Using an unconventional conducting style to deliver the five-in-a-bar metre, with which Rachmaninov tells of the oar strokes on the boat, Ashkenazy somehow kept the uneven rhythms heading forward together. While some of the ensemble was blurred around the edges, this proved to be in the spirit of the painting itself.
Ensemble was also a minor problem in the Sibelius, but this was because Vadim Repin took the fast music at a terrific pace, conveying the difficulty of the solo part while appearing not to break stride. In these hands the score glinted at the edges like galvanised steel, the exchanges between solo instrument and orchestra never less than involving, with some impressive contributions from woodwind and lower strings in particular. As the finale galloped away from the blocks it was all the strings could do to hang on to Repin’s coat tails, with one of Sibelius’s most propulsive pieces of music given extra vim and vigour.
Even these two performances were no match for the Third Symphony, a wonderful score that finds Rachmaninov at his ebullient best. Ashkenazy has a clear love and passion for this work, bringing out the intense bursts of lyricism that usher in the second theme of the first movement, while revealing the composer’s skill as an orchestrator in the slow movement, which gave way suddenly to a thrilling scherzo.
This was a real ‘desert island’ performance, conductor and orchestra delighting together in the glut of attractive melodies, but not without pointing out the rhythmic subtleties that give Rachmaninov both energy and elusive charm. In Ashkenazy’s hands all these qualities were emphasised, the ensemble tight as a nut and the ending as joyous as the round of applause that followed it.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk