When I saw Vladimir Ashkenazy conduct the Philharmonia last year, I was struck by his youthful playfulness, at the time close to his 79th birthday. Now approaching his 80th in July this year, there is no sign of this energy and enthusiasm diminishing. He conducted the Philharmonia with an evident sense of joy in the music-making, yet he also seemed genuinely reluctant to take full credit for proceedings, even insisting that he follow the Philharmonia’s leader off stage at the end. There were no fireworks, no empty gestures, but with low-key style (albeit with a rather quirky line in elbow conducting) he presented intelligent and engaging readings of three contrasting works.

Antoine Tamestit © Jose Lavezzi
Antoine Tamestit
© Jose Lavezzi
The programme began with Schubert’s Overture, Rosamunde, a relatively rare outing these days for what was once a popular concert opener. Okay, it’s not Schubert’s most profound uttering, and its connection to the incidental music Schubert wrote for the play Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypren (Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus) is also tenuous. Schubert originally recycled the overture from his opera Alfonso und Estrella, but it was after his death that the second overture, again recycled from Die Zauberharfe, was published as the Overture, Rosamunde. All that aside, it is a suitably dramatic curtain-raiser, with a dark opening section, followed by a dancing Allegro, full of life and melody. Ashkenazy gave the opening emphatic chords suitably dramatic weight, and the Philharmonia players enjoyed the spirited, Rossini-esque writing in the Allegro. No great surprises here, but a lively and joyful start nonetheless.

Veronika Eberle © Marco Borggreve
Veronika Eberle
© Marco Borggreve
Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante followed, with Veronika Eberle (violin) and Antoine Tamestit (viola) joining Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia strings, oboes & horns. Again, no real surprises here, in a steady reading, with no extremes of tempo. Often an issue here is the match of tone between the two solo instruments – sometimes an overly soloistic violin or a weighty viola can dominate, whereas the real beauty of this piece lies in a seamless exchange of the melodic lines between the two instruments. Eberle and Tamestit matched their sweet tones perfectly, making this a real duet of equals. They had their scores on stage – not necessarily a problem, although perhaps Eberle was a little more copy-bound in places than Tamestit. Overall, I would have liked to see more evident communication between the soloists and with the orchestra and Ashkenazy (who seemed a little relegated to the background in what is essentially a chamber work), but this was a performance with great elegance and beauty. The soloists included their own occasional tasteful ornamentation in the first movement, but their use of rubato in some of the running lines was a touch mannered in places. They enjoyed the Scotch snap rhythms of the finale, although here this led to Eberle rushing ahead ever so slightly once or twice. However, this was a pleasing performance, and their perfect ensemble in the gorgeous slow movement cadenza was particularly beautiful.

So to Elgar's Symphony no. 1, and here Ashkenazy showed exemplary command of this great of the English symphonic repertoire. Like many others before him, Elgar waited a long time before composing his first symphony, perhaps feeling the weight of expectation and the great symphonists that had gone before. Yet when it finally came, in his 50th year, it proved to be a huge success, described by Hans Richter as 'the greatest symphony of modern times', and it was performed nearly one hundred times in the first year alone. The orchestration is rich and lavish, yet Elgar uses great contrasts in texture too. The opening noble theme sets us off perhaps expecting Elgar in Pomp and Circumstance mode, but here Ashkenazy kept his powder dry, not over-indulging, even in the intense tutti statement of the theme that follows. The jump from A flat to D minor for the restless Allegro shocks the listener out of any nostalgic pomp very quickly, and Ashkenazy elicited a real sense of urgency from the strings in particular here. The second movement is also turbulent, even sinister, and Ashkenazy took this at a terrific pace, the violins totally on top of the racing, rather frenetic theme here with impressive technical command and tight ensemble. At the first performance, the beautiful Adagio that follows without a break, and masterfully transforms the theme from the previous movement, prompted a standing ovation. Here, Ashkenazy presented a reading that was touching and almost fragile at times.

The final movement has full string textures, with the string sections subdivided several times, and the triumphant return of the opening noble theme with a blaze of trumpets gives a rousing finish. Ashkenazy controlled the build expertly, so that when the final victorious return of the theme took over, the effect was suitably exhilarating, concluding a thoroughly engaging and lively performance.