I never expected that after a piano recital in 1984, I would have to wait 30 years to see Vladimir Ashkenazy live again, but his appearance with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra on Saturday was well worth the wait.

The first half of the programme was devoted to two contrasting works by Elgar. The rich orchestration of In the South (Alassio) often draws comparison with the symphonic poems of Richard Strauss, whereas the approach in the Cello Concerto in E minor borders on being minimalist.

Hong Kong Philharmonic © Cheung Chi Wai
Hong Kong Philharmonic
© Cheung Chi Wai

Vladimir Ashkenazy looked as if he had psyched himself up into the right mood for In the South. Even before he had steadied himself on the podium, his arms were raised to get the orchestra going in the boisterous opening, replete with a fanfare on brass and a sense of triumph. The heavy drums, low brass and shivering strings in the middle of the work threw us off balance and reminded us of the brutal history that shaped modern Italy. Andrew Ling, Principal Viola, fresh from his demonstration of the 1719 Stradivari at a press briefing the day before for the instrument’s imminent auction, rose to the challenge of the romantic interlude, fully exploiting the cantabile quality of the passage. Elgar clearly enjoyed the holiday and even spared time to reflect on the sweetness of being with his wife Alice.

Against the dominance of Jacqueline du Pré’s landmark interpretation and lately Alisa Weilerstein’s revival with the help of Daniel Barenboim, soloist Sol Gabetta’s handling of the Cello Concerto in E minor may have sounded under-powered. It certainly didn’t hit us between the eyes as a wail of anguished despair, but rather jolted us as a heart-rending lament of loss. Her opening chords were more passionate than impassioned, and in the rest of the first movement she made her point with sensitivity and poignancy rather than forcefulness. The pizzicato that launched the Lento-Allegro Molto second movement was emphatic, and Ms Gabetta obviously relished the break from the depression of the first movement. Unfortunately, her articulation was at times a little murky.

The sense of longing for a world no more, was there for all to see in the Adagio, the measured and drawn-out phrasing uncannily mimicking the inability to let go. Despite a vastly quicker dancing pace, the finale provided no relief to the gloom, as the opening chords returned with a vengeance and the orchestra swamped the soloist with a torrential coda. Compared with In the South, orchestration in the Cello Concerto is lightweight, and the Hong Kong Philharmonic delivered it as a superb counterpoise to the soloist without getting in her way. Most pleasing for me were flashes of that elusive “rustic English” sound in the strings, which made it that much more Elgar.

Sol Gabetta © Uwe Arens
Sol Gabetta
© Uwe Arens

After the intermission, Vladimir Ashkenazy presented his own orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – a credible and refreshing alternative to Ravel’s. The differences are subtle rather than dramatic, but the effect was quite noticeable. The use of three trumpets instead of one in the opening “Promenade” made it all the more ardent, and the double basses enhanced the eerie menace of the “Gnome”. The timbre of the oboe d’amore in “The Old Castle” made it more, dare I say it, Russian than the saxophone in Ravel. Four horns in “Oxen” made the weight of the wagon, a symbol of oppression of Poland almost unbearable. To cap it all, “The Great Gate of Kiev” sounded specially magical and glorious in the blaze of horns and bells.

Thirty years is a long time to wait, even for a masterful performance by Vladimir Ashkenazy, but it was a gratifying experience. With Barenboim and Eschenbach, he ranks among the crème de la crème of pianist-conductors.