Incredibly, it is almost 45 years since Vladimir Ashkenazy first conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra from the podium. Such a long-standing partnership easily invites thoughts as to whether Ashkenazy may conjure up an old soul from the orchestra, excavating sonorities that once famed the ensemble under the batons of Klemperer, Giulini and Maazel. Yet in an exceptional performance such as this, guesses hardly mattered.

Sakaya Shoji © Norizumi Kitada | UMLLC
Sakaya Shoji
© Norizumi Kitada | UMLLC

Still, exceptionality comes in various forms. Ashkenazy’s way was not to question or explore, but to remind how lofty the familiar can be both in terms of repertoire choice and conducting. Unobtrusive may be one way to put it, conviction and absolute certainty is another. In the absence of eccentricities, the conductor, musicians, and the audience all knew exactly where and how to go. Thus, if history inevitably remembers the essentials, the performance felt like music-making from an old world. Through the joys that arose, such joy being the kind that feels simultaneously fond yet fresh, came the realisation that in the old there is the new, and in the new, the old.

How apt to this narrative, then, that at the dusk of 2019, a portrayal of a 19th-century “new world” claimed the conclusion of the evening’s programme. Dvořák's “New World” Symphony, in all its colourful dynamism, was argued with natural allure and maturity. The initial tutti in the first movement hinted that the work’s muscularity was to give way to a more subtle outlook. Hence the Allegro molto and Scherzo had a sense of repose and beautifully contained excitement. The Largo was poignant and always returning to the work's joyous core. In the finale, Ashkenazy added physicality to the brass and timpani, but this was not overdone. The avoidance of the purely visceral in the last moments painted a unified, stately whole of this popular work. While Dvořák is known to have said that he’d be happy to surrender his symphonies for his invention of the locomotive, Ashkenazy’s performance gives such thought a run for the money.

Starting the concert was Grieg’s Holberg Suite, a string orchestral work written in the style of the 18th century. A light and sweet appetiser it may be on paper, Ashkenazy brought a compelling degree of clarity and seriousness. If the suite may lack the profundity of Bach’s Sarabandes and Airs, it naturally unfolded in deep-felt focus and warmth.

The highlight of the evening was Brahms’ Violin Concerto. The merits that characterised this performance were also those that made the other pieces work so well. Inspiration took the form of unaffected yet affectionate, and effective playing, with Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji making all the difference. Shoji’s unembellished and direct, partly soft-grained, and partly determined bowing, was immaculately integrated with the Philharmonia. Had either the orchestra or soloist been a tad bit more extrovert, the performance could have fallen apart. Yet beauty often walks on thin lines. Here was a case where thoroughly crafted visions of artistries formed a formidable result.

Such music-making can look suspicious because it seems so effortless. Yet where great things take effort, truly great things happen naturally, taking off a life-form of their own.

*****