Rachmaninov is often associated with a deep-rooted melancholy and nostalgia, but this programme, featuring two works at different stages in the composer’s career, revealed two contrasting facets of a complex musical personality. The Isle of the Dead and the Symphonic Dances are both lavishly orchestrated and yet their harmonic vocabulary are worlds apart. The intense Russianness of his symphonic poem is, 30 years later, replaced by a more exuberant, life-affirming score, conceived during his final years in America and which became his swansong. By way of contrast, these richly expressive works framed Prokofiev’s blockbuster piano concerto which the composer described as “incredibly difficult and merciless tiring”. This work was given an authoritative performance and was astonishing for the apparent ease with which it was dispatched.

Denis Kozhukhin © Felix Broede
Denis Kozhukhin
© Felix Broede

The Isle of the Dead was given an intensely focused account with Ashkenazy hunched over the Philharmonia's players as if determined to recreate the haunting atmosphere of the Arnold Böcklin painting that so inspired Rachmaninov. From the darkly austere opening bars (divided cellos and double basses) to its powerful climax Ashkenazy navigated its desolate waters with superbly controlled dynamics with an unwavering grip on the music’s accumulating tensions. Meticulous preparation produced clean lines within Rachmaninov’s sumptuous score (often crowded with rhythmic detail), and in the doom-laden closing section Philharmonia leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay was an eloquent soloist.

Originally conceived in 1913 and revised just over ten years later, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor is one of the most challenging in the repertoire – requiring both virtuosity and huge stamina. These qualities were abundantly apparent in Denis Kozhukhin’s playing, an exceptionally polished account in a work with little respite. Not only was there impeccable technique audible but a fearless bravura so that the thicket of notes that formed the first movement cadenza seemed to be articulated effortlessly. The feverish Scherzo was no less remarkable, and in the more densely scored Intermezzo the Philharmonia was unfailingly supportive. It was an indefatigable (and now smiling) Kozhukhin that drew rapturous applause at the end, triumphant in this gargantuan challenge.

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances took up the rest of the programme and was characterised by momentum in the outer movements and a Hollywood sweep in the central Andante. The opening Non allegro was gutsy with incisive rhythms, and driven forward with tremendous panache, yet not so fast that orchestral detail was compromised. Ashkenazy secured a perfect transition to the Lento section where Rachmaninov’s woodwind sonorities were captivating, tellingly set in motion by Simon Haram’s beguiling saxophone solo. Throughout Ashkenazy obtained playing that was wonderfully transparent. The start of the Andante was suitably arresting in its muted trumpets and horns, followed by an expressive violin solo. Jill Crowther’s cor anglais also charmed the ear, but it was the Philharmonia’s silky-smooth strings who conjured a vivid impression of a 1930s American dance band – familiar to Rachmaninov during his years in New York and California. The two-part Finale was well shaped and in the concluding Allegro horns and trumpets thrillingly blazed their Dies irae bringing a gripping performance to a close.