Vladimir Ashkenazy, true grand old man of Russian and international performance and tradition, still sprightly as a spring, took to the Royal Festival Hall stage with the Philharmonia. As Conductor Laureate, he led them through an all-Russian programme, plumbing depths and attaining true heights.

Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila kicked things off, with the whole energy of the orchestra pinpoint-focused at every moment through a dashing six minutes. The father of Russian music’s opera, based on Pushkin’s poem, is usually only heard through this prelude, full of giddy fanfares and strings that seem to be pelting for the finish-line, yet all was felt to be in perfect control under Ashkenazy’s bouncing 81-year-young frame. The transition from bubbling energy to the gentler cello motif was marvellous and heralded the lyricism in the Glazunov which was to follow. As the overture circled back round to the rhythms of its opening salvos, Ashkenazy rounded things off with a burst of brilliant energy. This neat little opener perfectly revealed the dynamic and emotional range of the orchestra under Ashkenazy.

Esther Yoo
© Marco Borggreve

Young American violinist Esther Yoo then took to the stage for Glazunov’s Violin Concerto in A minor, premiered in 1904 and with fingers in all pies of the 19th-century Russian tradition, from the brilliant orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov to the lyricism of Tchaikovsky. But while Glazunov might rightly be viewed as an old-fashioned and not particularly original composer, his technical brilliance and emotional intelligence is certain.

The concerto’s structural beauty, seamlessly melding its movements through a variety of moods and textures, was matched by Yoo’s exquisite sensitivity, and a palpable emotional rigour and maturity incredibly impressive in a musician so young. She was harmonious with the fine-tuned delicacy and intelligence of the Philharmonia and Ashkenazy; Glazunov’s luminous orchestration was teased and shone out brightly, and the essential emotional balance of the piece, from its relaxed, lyrical beginnings to its beautiful slower movement, to the regained, positive vibrancy of the finale with its folkish melody, gave an air of sympathy between soloist and orchestra which it is impossible to fake or mistake.

A splendid encore closed the first half, with Yoo and first viola Yukiko Ogura duetting on the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia for Violin and Viola, transcribed by Johan Halvorsen in 1893 and based on Handel’s Passacaille from the Suite in G Minor, HWV 432; it was a fierce and electrifying six minutes, unravelling the capacities of both instruments beautifully in a rising tide of emotion.

The final piece showcased the maturity, the range and the balance that Ashkenazy brought front-and-centre with the orchestra. Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 10 in E minor was produced after an eight-year gap of symphony writing for the composer and was allowed out into the world with the gradually loosening strictures of the post-Stalin regime; its premiere came at the end of 1953, the year of the great dictator’s death.

For this grand finale, Ashkenazy took the orchestra through an emotional odyssey. The grumbling lower depths in which the symphony begins are full of a shuffling ominousness before unwinding, bristling with dangerous grief. Though titled Moderato, the feeling of the first movement is that of a splenetic funeral march, full of tension which was masterfully upheld by Ashkenazy, fully in command of the music’s temper.

The tension unravelled slightly as the first movement ended, and Ashkenazy seemed to have shifted into the right gear just in time to lead the orchestra through the nervy and disturbing, yet somehow rousing Scherzo, said by some to be a musical portrait of Stalin. Yet this movement is certainly not devoid of emotional knottiness and was sensitively handled again. Attention flagged only in the third movement and the beginning of the fourth, with its difficult levelling-out of the energy in a more moderate and less characterful nocturne. It may just have been that Ashkenazy’s ingenuity or the orchestra’s focus flagged in maintaining the razor-sharp tension through this less viscerally appealing section of the piece, but things picked up as the finale found its feet, and the sense of the symphony’s emotional range was made plain, running from a naïve optimism to a threat of returning to terror, to a final, wrenchingly-hard won triumph, which Ashkenazy seemed to be reaching for with the commitment of someone climbing toward the light out of a cave. The orchestra followed him, and the blaze of triumph in which the symphony flares out was catharsis embodied.