A concert entitled “Askenazy’s Favourites” is always going to be intriguing, but perhaps more intriguing are his choices. If asked to pick what symphony Ashkenazy would choose to go in this concert, I would have thought that most people would have chosen a large-scale Romantic symphony, maybe Brahms, Rachmaninov or Mahler. How many people would have thought that Ashkenazy would have chosen Walton’s First Symphony? Ashkenazy is reluctant to pick favourites since he is a fan and of course of a master of most of the repertoire, but yet he says, “I love Walton 1, it’s an absolute favourite”.

Vladimir Ashkenazy © Keith Saunders
Vladimir Ashkenazy
© Keith Saunders

The choice of the opening work in the program was less surprising – Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture. This piece does not have a strict narrative but its structure does follow dramatic elements of the play. The famous Allegro contained the fiery passion necessary and was delivered with energy and precision. The way the first violins unveiled their rendition of the second subject was exquisite and reminded me of a similar moment in last week’s concert where the melody at the start of the final movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony emerges. As on that occasion, this moment was a highlight as the first violins weaved this magical melody seamlessly out of the orchestral texture with their characteristically warm, lush tone. The accompanying horn playing was also very well judged and well controlled. The climax at the piece’s conclusion was thrilling, with the brass cutting through the texture like a knife. It was great to see the orchestra really enjoying this performance, playing with a lot of energy and passion which transmitted itself to the audience.

The second piece in the program, like the Walton, was another interesting, if not slightly unexpected choice from Ashkenazy: Strauss’ Oboe Concerto, featuring guest soloist Hansjörg Schellenberger. Ashkenazy has described Schellenberger as one of his “absolutely favourite oboists”. He has certainly had a highly distinguished career to date as solo oboist with the Berlin Philharmonic and founder of the Berlin Haydn Ensemble. Strauss’ concerto is not on the same large scale as many of his other works, requiring only 49 musicians on stage plus the soloist and conductor. The work contains no trumpets or low brass instruments and, interestingly, no orchestral oboe part, which creates added demands for the soloist as in effect he has to fulfill that role as well. The concerto is written in a traditional three-movement, Classical form and places considerable demands on soloist and orchestra alike. The solo part begins with an unrelenting fifty six bar passage with almost nowhere to breathe and is a pure display of virtuosity. The interaction between the solo and orchestral parts is extremely intricate and was handled with great precision. The slow movement perhaps showcases more traditional Strauss, containing some wonderful lyrical writing, which was handled sensitively by the performers. Although it is important to take nothing away from the considerably impressive virtuosic display from Schellenberger, his tuning was often wayward, surprising for a musician of his calibre.

From the relatively small forces of the Strauss to the very full forces required for Walton’s Symphony no. 1, which comprised the second half of the evening’s concert. The work dates from the 1930s, a time of depression across Europe. No wonder then that a lot of the symphony is very dark. In fact, all of the first three movements are rather sombre in mood and it is not until we reach the final movement that we experience the more triumphant Walton. The composer himself stated: “it is practically impossible to get away from the general feeling of hopelessness and chaos which exists everywhere.” This mood however was effectively captured by Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The different motifs were communicated with clarity and created a certain tempestuousness, inherent in the music. The lyrical third movement was delicately handled and bathed the Opera House in a sumptuous state of melancholy. This gave rise to the final movement, in which the full might of the orchestra was unleashed bringing to a close a fascinating evening at the end of which Ashkenazy proudly pointed to his score, reserving some applause for this symphony which is obviously so dear to his heart.

***11