Despite all the differences, there are many commonalities between the outputs of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. They were both educated at the Saint Petersburg Conservatoire, under the long shadow cast by Rimsky-Korsakov, a fabulous orchestrator. Both fully understood the wretchedness of a political and ideological system that repressed and rewarded them, reacting to Stalin’s machinations differently but certainly inconsistently. Their music is often paired, to evoke a world that we are still fascinated with. Such was the case at an Enescu Festival early evening performance, with Vladimir Ashkenazy leading the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts the Philharmonia © Cătălina Filip
Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts the Philharmonia
© Cătălina Filip

The contrast between the two “panels” of the performance’s diptych couldn’t have been greater. In the first half, Michael Barenboim was the soloist in an amorphous rendition of the free-spirited and daring Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, written right before the 1917 Revolution that upended the composer’s life. Barenboim has the required technical skills to correctly interpret this difficult score with its multitude of double stops, pizzicatos, and G-string rapid climbs. Phrasing adequately the music’s lyrical themes, capturing their soaring beauty, especially in the spiraling-to-the-sky ending, Barenboim was lost, though, when facing the sharp-edged contours of the caustic middle section of the Andantino and the barely restrained rebelliousness of the Scherzo. This music has a tartness, a mordant quality that his interpretation totally lacked. In the absence of a soloist that could sound as a mesmerizing fiddler, Ashkenazy tried to find beauty in the orchestral details and coloring, also emphasizing the unconventional structure of this opus. He pointed out links to the sounds of the Classical Symphony, composed around the same time, or unexpected foretelling moments, such as the Romeo and Juliet-evoking bassoon in the third movement.

Ashkenazy and members of the Philharmonia © Cătălina Filip
Ashkenazy and members of the Philharmonia
© Cătălina Filip

After a rather soporific Prokofiev, Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony was full of energy and drive. In a recent interview, Vladimir Ashkenazy declared that “one can learn how to conduct but not how to understand music”. His baton-wielding technique might be a little awkward, his gesture not very elegant, but he proved here again that he can obtain, in a difficult and complex score, remarkable results when leading a talented ensemble. The arch of the first movement, of Mahlerian proportions, was very well shaped, with the right mixture of spaciousness and momentum. There were subtle inflexions of tempo and every cross-reference was clearly delineated. Solo interventions – such as a little dance for the flute – blended well in the overall musical fabric, as they mostly did throughout the evening. Shostakovich completed the 10th Symphony in 1953, after Stalin’s death, and, according to the disputed “Testimony” published by Solomon Volkov, the short, furious and savage Scherzo is a “musical portrait of Stalin”. Ashkenazy brought forward the terror, the ferocity deeply ingrained in the score. Mystery and shadows were made palpable by the Philharmonia instrumentalists in the Allegretto, a dance-like, Gustav Mahler-inspired Nachtmusik, growing up from malevolence. The conductor’s instinct for the right pacing was evident, as the finale might seem a little long and repetitive. A fine Bach interpreter, Ashkenazy underlined all the contrapuntal elements. His way of incorporating the composer’s signature, the D-S-C-H motif, in the overall “chorus of joy”, stressed the awkwardness, the reluctance, the irony.

Vladimir Ashkenazy took up conducting late, after decades of a very successful career as a pianist. At 80, he has a lot to offer still to his admirers.