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.
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.
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