Warhorse (noun): creaky old classic played by orchestras in their sleep at least once a season. Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor falls into this category. Everyone recognises the opening brass salvoes, charging into battle, spurring the piano to action. The stampeding cossack dance finale is a familiar gallop. It only lacks cannons, but then, Tchaikovsky employed these elsewhere. There was absolutely no snoozing, however, through Alice Sara Ott's startling performance with the Philharmonia, a barnstorming rendition which gripped from first note until last.

Alice Sara Ott © Jonas Becker
Alice Sara Ott
© Jonas Becker

This concert was the last programme in Vladimir Ashkenazy's Rachmaninov Project with the orchestra, but it was the Tchaikovsky concerto which stood out. From the very start, Ott gave an open-hearted response to the score, taking a gleeful gulp of air before diving into the emphatic opening chords. Like a mermaid, in silvery sequinned gown, she plunged to the piano’s bass depths, sometimes splaying out her right foot for balance. It was no holds barred stuff, Ott leaning into the keyboard with such vigour that she often launched herself clean off the piano stool. At one point, she even had to swoop beneath the piano to tighten one of the castors. The first movement cadenza had an improvisatory feel, pouncing forward on the final note, almost bringing her nose to nose with the conductor. The finale was both playful and provocative.

There were frequent glances at the woodwinds, and she even turned to look at the horns, flicking back her fringe, whilst still executing a long right hand trill. Ott listened intently, swaying, basking in the gentle balm of Samuel Coles’ solo at the start of the Andantino semplice second movement, earning the flautist the presentation of her bouquet at the end. A knockout performance.

Elsewhere, Alexander Glazunov loomed large over the rest of this concert, even though neither work contained a single note of his music. Glazunov helped prepare Borodin's unfinished opera Prince Igor for publication, allegedly composing the overture from memory, having heard the composer play it through at the piano. It’s a melodic pot pourri – no wonder Robert Wright and George Forrest raided the opera for their musical Kismet. Ashkenazy led a clean performance, the highlight coming with the horns’ glowing phrases from Igor's aria.

Glazunov’s part in the première of Rachmaninov's First Symphony was less helpful. He is frequently blamed for its disastrous first performance, which he (again allegedly) conducted whilst drunk. Thankfully, Ashkenazy’s rendition was alcohol-free, although the symphony’s gloomy outlook would be enough to drive a man to vodka. The title page of Rachmaninov’s original manuscript apparently bore the inscription "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." from Anna Karenina, and fate looms large throughout.

Ashkenazy has an unconventional technique, shoulders hunched, wiggling from side to side, jabbing and jerking his baton like a dangerous weapon, but his response to the music is endearing. He drew excellent playing from the Philharmonia, with aggressive bass pizzicatos and timpani rolls to lead you directly to the gates of hell. Pealing brass chorales intoned Russian orthodox chant (in a work packed with early references to the Dies irae motto) and the scherzo quietly schemed and plotted. Ashkenazy allowed the tension to sag a touch in the Larghetto, where Rachmaninov's writing meanders, but the tub-thumping finale was full of military pomp. A most gripping end to this Rachmaninov series.

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