The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées was full to bursting: the Paris smart set had come to hear a highly anticipated program – pianist Evgeny Kissin and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Fifth Symphony.

Vladimir Ashkenazy © Keith Saunders
Vladimir Ashkenazy
© Keith Saunders
Before these masterpieces, Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia presented a rare symphonic ballad Tchaikovsky wrote only two years before his death: The Voyevoda. Apart from the title, it has nothing to do with his opera of the same name, and is based on a poem by Adam Mickiewicz: a voivode (warlord) comes back from war and catches his wife with her lover; he orders his servant to kill her but is killed by the shot himself. This tragic story benefits from very complex musical writing and deserves better than its obscurity. The piece begins with a captivating ride involving the snare drum. A strange atmosphere emerges from sinuous melodic lines enhanced by subtle harmonic processes. These tensions are then resolved by a more lyric scene with the celesta, used for the first time by the composer. Far away from the style of The Nutcracker, the love scene has a strange air, partially due to surprising, shifting rhythms between strings and celesta. Fully living his score, Vladimir Ashkenazy perfectly showed this disconcerting instability and kept the whole scene in inexpressible suspense. The lovers are disturbed by the riding voivode’s arrival and the orchestral writing gets denser still. In this last part, the twilight atmosphere already suggests Mahler or Shostakovich. The audience was thrilled up until the final shot and the dramatic brass calls.

Tchaikovsky hated his score and declared it to be rubbish. But we should thank Vladimir Ashkenazy for letting us discover that brilliant, puzzling opus, and for giving such a precise and convincing interpretation.

It is still an extraordinary moment to have Evgeny Kissin in Paris, and the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées was obviously glad to hear him in one of the most famous pieces in the repertoire. With incredible ease, the orchestra and the pianist conversed through the successive themes. Their interpretation was certainly very sensitive but not even so exaggerated; Kissin proved his talent one more time with delicate quiet playing, inspired nuances and a genuine Russian touch. Ashkenazy led his orchestra in a precise, refined style, creating musical waves from instrumentation, shades and intentions. Unfortunately, beyond this good-looking sensibility, the concerto quickly seemed to run out of steam and lose some ardor in the second movement. The sparkling finale reawakened the previous musical connection between the pianist, the conductor, his orchestra and their audience, and the concerto ended with a thunder of applause and endless curtain calls.

The Fourth Symphony was built around a “Fate” theme. Ten years later, Tchaikovsky used such a theme as a connecting thread in his Fifth, and returned to the theme throughout the work, from a tragic exposition to a luminous conclusion – as Beethoven did in his Fifth. The programmatic sketches of the first-movement figure that the whole symphony is actually based on ask this central question: will man overcome his Fate?

In the unstable, harrowing first movement and the intimate, comforting second one, the conductor and the orchestra excited us with new sounds that had not been heard during the concerto: gloomy clarinets, resonant strings and mighty horns created a fascinating environment. We lost it during the third movement but found it again in the bright Finale and its wide, heroic brass themes. Despite joking with his musicians between each movement, Ashkenazy seemed a little tired – though several times his orchestra miraculously landed on its feet. The highly talented desks had a perfect understanding of their conductor and they easily got through this difficult score. At the very end, the question remained: did man succeed in overcoming Fate, or did Fate win the final fight? After a long, epic end, four large, similar chords rang successively out – “Fate knocking at the door”, as Beethoven might have said.