Vladimir Ashkenazy made his debut as a pianist with The Cleveland Orchestra in 1968. From 1987-94 he was the orchestra’s principal guest conductor. This weekend, almost half a century after his debut, the 80-year-old Ashkenazy returned, vigorously, to lead solid performances of two works by Sir Edward Elgar, plus Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with the esteemed Emanuel Ax.

Vladimir Ashkenazy
© Keith Saunders

Elgar’s Serenade for String Orchestra in E minor was written when Elgar was 32 and not yet established on the British composing scene. In its three short movements totaling about ten minutes, Elgar’s youthful verve shines through. The second movement is the most substantial, with a chromatic theme introducing a sentimental melody. Ashkenazy’s tempo was slow, with liberal rubato, sometimes stretching the pulse to its breaking point. Yet the effect of the texture “hovering” in space and time was magical. The final Allegretto was also on the slow side, refined and gentle.

No less a musical personage than Sergei Rachmaninov played the first Cleveland Orchestra performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major in 1941 at an “All Star Popular Concert”. This weekend’s performances may not have been pops concerts, but pianist Emanuel Ax was a worthy successor to the Russian of 1941. Ax’s regular appearances with The Cleveland Orchestra, including this one, are characterized by precise and secure technical facility and always tasteful musicianship.

The first movement, as led by Ashkenazy, was marked with dramatic dynamic changes, with fleet passagework in the solo piano. The remarkable cadenza featured many changes in mood, incorporating themes from the movement, and brilliant virtuosity. The second movement Largo was lyrical, but not particularly slow or sentimental, with highly ornamented melodic lines in the piano. The movement’s prominent clarinet obbligato was beautifully played by assistant principal Daniel McKelway. The third movement commenced with the barest of pauses after the second. The piano’s unaccompanied announcement of the rondo theme set up a romp, dancing through rhythmic tricks and folk-like themes, and unexpected harmonic modulations. For a composer in his 20s, Beethoven was already in sure command of his compositional technique. This performance was fascinating in its pairing of two pianists as soloist and conductor. Although not earthshaking conceptually, it was a musically polished reading by two masters.

Elgar was largely unknown when his String Serenade was composed in 1892-93; but just six years later, his Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma Variations) gave him fame almost overnight and the work remains an essential staple of the orchestral repertoire. Perhaps the fascination with the “enigma” is its musical characterizations of Elgar’s friends, yet the variations are brilliant enough to sustain the music even without the programmatic aspects. This was a fine performance, sustaining interest from beginning to end. There were a few momentary intonation lapses along the way, but the overall effect remained strong. Perhaps the best moments were those of the incidental soloists, including violist Lynne Ramsey in Variation 6, and cellist Richard Weiss’ noble playing in Variation 12. The final variation 14 “E.D.U.” – identifying the composer himself – was thrilling.