Entitled “Ashkenazy and Mullova”, this Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra concert was obviously designed to showcase two great Russian musicians, violinist Viktoria Mullova and pianist-turned-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, in a programme of Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Dvořák. Of the two, it was Mullova who lived up to her reputation and more, delivering a searingly intense account of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor. But unfortunately, although he had memorable moments, Ashkenazy was less convincing.

Viktoria Mullova
© Benjamin Ealovega

The concert opened with that well-known war horse, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Tchaikovsky, and it was a largely auspicious opening. From the outset, Ashkenazy showed himself a master of orchestral sonorities, beginning with the fragile chorale sound he coaxed from the wind section to represent the kindly Friar Laurence. He and the orchestra were equally adept at the ensuing section depicting the conflict of the rival families, expertly tackling the off-kilter rhythms with a forward propulsion and accuracy in its percussion crashes that made the music seem almost Stravinskian. The famous love theme was then delicately teased out but while the brass flared convincingly in its climactic reappearance, the strings were perhaps not quite sumptuous enough. Additionally, the transitions between each theme seemed awkward, as though Ashkenazy was presenting very memorable vignettes with mere filler music in between.

Luckily, Mullova appeared to tackle Sibelius’ sole concerto with power and confidence in a most compelling interpretation. She introduced herself in the lightest of whispered tones, every note of every ornamental figure perfectly clear even though they were produced with the tiniest thread of sound. This concerto is technically intimidating but there was nothing here to challenge Mullova and it was jaw-dropping how casually she could dispatch the extremely elaborate cadenza in the first movement’s development section. Similarly, the third movement abounded with aggressive gymnastics; double-stops and arpeggiated figures all wonderfully thrilling. But it was not just a technical marvel; there is clearly a deep conception of how this music should go beyond the technical aspects. She refused to over-sentimentalise the first movement’s main theme, instead presenting it as a sudden outburst of intense yearning after her whispered beginning. Equally, she made something heated and intense out of the violin’s febrile ruminations later in the movement. In the exquisite singing line of the second movement, the appeal was not just in her beauty of tone but in the concentrated feeling she brought to the shaping of each phrase, to the varying vibrato of each note. With a soloist of such intensity, the orchestra was reduced to something of a secondary character, though the horns made the most of their raucous moments in the finale.

The encore was an astonishingly personal account of the Adagio from Bach’s Violin Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001, at one tender and anguished, each successive melodic line delineated superbly and the passagework shaped with unexpected rubato and a marvellous hushed intensity.

Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7 in D minor is normally regarded as one of the sunny composer’s most sombre works, but on this occasion Ashkenazy presented an overall quick and surprisingly genial take on the piece. This suited the quiet, lyrical moments of the first movement but not so much the more uneasy later parts which went for very little. It was only the horns’ suddenly jarring diminished-seventh call that interrupted the rather subdued reverie that Ashkenazy had created. The second movement was again lovely, calm with some outbursts of turbulence, but again this was lighter in mood than expected with an overall smoothness of feeling that rendered the music more pleasant than affecting. The story was much the same in the final two movements, though it must be admitted that Ashkenazy brought a welcome swing to the Scherzo’s dance figures. This is not to imply any problem with the orchestral playing as the Auckland Philharmonia was excellent throughout. The strings sang out gorgeously in the second movement and the wind solos in the third movement were most expressive. The final movement found some welcome and propulsion and rhythmic intensity but overall it was a strangely relaxed and jolly affair that would hardly have one feeling that this score deserves its reputation as one of Dvořák’s greatest.