Vladimir Ashkenazy  and the Philharmonia were back home, fresh from Birmingham and Cambridge, for their third performance in as many days of the Rachmaninov works in the programme. They were joined for the second time by the American-Korean violinist Esther Yoo for a dazzling performance of SibeliusViolin Concerto. However, there was no sense of ‘here we go again’ – these were fresh and energetic performances, and Ashkenazy seemed full of almost boyish excitement, making it hard to believe he is approaching his 79th birthday.

Esther Yoo © Marco Borggreve
Esther Yoo
© Marco Borggreve

The opener was Rachmaninov’s enigmatic fantasy, The Rock, Op.7. It is ostensibly based on a short Lermentov poem, about a cloud’s dewy mark left on a brooding rock that becomes tears of loneliness. However, Rachmaninov  also indicated that the work’s dedicatee Chekhov was perhaps the greater inspiration. The plot of the latter’s short story, On the Road, of a middle-aged man and young woman trapped in an inn during a snowstorm, and the man’s subsequent sadness and despair when she leaves to return to her family, clearly has parallels – Chekhov himself quoted Lermentov’s poem at the beginning of his story. Inspiration aside, The Rock is a brooding affair. Churning basses, slightly macabre dancing woodwind and wild string outbursts capture a sense of anguish and despair, yet its relative brevity leaves the listener with a slightly unresolved sense of “what was that all about?”. However, the Philharmonia did justice to the imaginative orchestration, which shows more than a hint of Rimsky-Korsakov (whom Rachmaninov thanked in his acknowledgement).

From the beginning of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, Esther Yoo commanded the stage, towering over Ashkenazy. Yet she did not monopolise proceedings, and as well as a strong focus on communicating with the audience, she also engaged with the orchestra, moving and swaying when not playing, and clearly connecting with the orchestral players. This was an authoritative performance, with every note in place. Her pianissimo opening was matched by Ashkenazy keeping the strings at an almost inaudible level, making for a captivating beginning. Yoo’s tone was sweet, yet she also gave bite to the pointed rhythms, adding often missed accentuation against the tricky double-stopped trills. Ashkenazy also enjoyed these rhythms, marking the syncopations with shoulders and elbows, adding to their spikiness. The pickup following the first movement’s cadenza was a little sluggish, but a dramatic finish was still achieved. In the slow movement, Yoo’s playing was sensitive and heartfelt, and apart from slightly raucous bassoon chords at the end, the orchestra played with equal care and attention. The finale’s pace was steady, but this again allowed for extra rhythmic pointing, and the challenging octave and harmonic scales appeared effortless to Yoo. Ashkenazy might have drawn a little more power from the strings at the conclusion, but swirling scales built to a sturdy climax. 

Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 3 has taken time to be welcomed into the symphonic canon. Its première in 1936 was received somewhat ambivalently, suffering from that classic mixed reaction of not ‘modern’ enough for some, too ‘modern’ for others. Yet its less overt Romanticism and greater concision than some of his earlier, more popular works makes it worthy of still greater attention than it receives. Ashkenazy is clearly alive to its merits – his angular, sometimes uncomfortable conducting style suddenly became fuller and more fluid, and the Philharmonia matched his enthusiasm. Ashkenazy shapes the ebb and flow so well that he makes perfect sense of what can sometimes seem like uncertainty in the direction of travel. The mysterious brief introduction of muted horn, muted solo cello and clarinet, immediately gives way to a boisterous outburst, with more than a touch of Walton to it. But that introductory motif is not to be forgotten – it recurs, and eventually is transformed into Rachmaninov’s almost trademark use of the Dies Irae, finally emerging in full in the finale. Ashkenazy drew a lush, rich sound from the Philharmonia for the more ‘Hollywood’ moments, yet never allowed these to become overblown. The slow movement’s contrasts, between the opening horn solo against harp accompaniment, followed by the falling solo violin tune which gets passed around the woodwind before growing into a full string climax, were all subtly managed with a light touch. The central scherzo had just the right amount of menace in its threatening march, and the presence of Rimsky-Korsakov was felt in the closing return of the solo violin, à la Scheherazade. Ashkenazy let rip with great energy and excitement for the finale, again showing hints of Walton in the music. Yet despite its attempts at emphatic positivity, this ending is nevertheless ambiguous, and one senses that Rachmaninov struggled to banish the shadow of troubled exile here. Despite this, Ashkenazy exploited to the full the accelerando into the exciting coda, finishing proceedings on a suitably energetic note.