Music / The Berkshire Review in Australia

Vladimir Ashkenazy, the Sydney Symphony and Stephen Kovacevich Play Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Strauss’ Alpensinfonie

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Richard Strauss having a siesta. Photo from
Richard Strauss having a siesta. Photo from

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House: 18 February 2012
Friday 17 February’s perfomrance to be broadcast on ABC Classic FM on 7 March.

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Opus 58
Richard Strauss Eine Alpensinfonie, Opus 64

Stephen Kovacevich – piano
Vladimir Ashkenazy – conductor
Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra continue with the second in their triptych of Beethoven-Richard Strauss concerts which opens their 2012 season. Maestro Ashkenazy, their artistic director for the past few years who usually conducts himself several concerts at the beginning and end of the season (the Eternal Summer!), and the SSO seem to have established a warm and close rapport and respect, to judge from the jocular, playful exchanges and inaudible banter he shares with the orchestra members after the music, shaking hands with all the front-row strings after every concert, as well as from the fine and detailed interpretations they create together. Stephen Kovacevich brought a remarkable like-mindedness to this partnership. He also brought a complimentary attitude so that the concerto was a conversation beyond words between individual beings. The sound of his piano and what Kovacevich expressed therein had a remarkably immediate, very close presence, where often there is a wider gap between a guest soloist-virtuoso and the audience. Similarly the orchestra had a generous and open pellucid quality — not ever quite the homogeneously mixed and integrated sound of cogs in the the romantic-orchestral apparatus, nor exactly a contrasty orchestra of soloists, but something in-between those extremes and something else entirely which preserved the instruments’ characteristic timbres, at least section-wise, in an even-handed balance, a sound which can speak coherently in many different ways all at once. Kovacevich got through his childhood concert début some 60 years ago and so has nothing to prove, and his performance with Ashkenazy, himself a pianist, and now a conductor, of great experience, had deep maturity, but also at the same time a playful child-like quality, a surface insouciance rather more interested in the details and problems in the music which matter.

At first one could hear something of the Mozart influence in the Beethoven concerto, in the honest and innocent shaping of melodic phrases for instance, later it sounded something of Brahms, from a harmonic richness and rather more ambivalent emotion in the melody, but soon after the performance developed into something of its own: unadulterated Beethoven. Far beyond the cliché “Music of Power” often pinned to Beethoven, Kovacevich’s playing had a certain softness to it by virtue of his light and controlled touch, but this sensitivity and the clear, discrete shaping of the notes gave it almost a brittleness close underneath, with much more going on than gentleness versus power. He often gives the notes a distinct shape without percussiveness, yet runs them together enough that they have a certain flow which sketches a tendency towards a larger shape, like the bruch-strokes of certain impressionist painters, Renoir in particular. His keenly-heard articulation of the ornaments, the small descending turns or trills which Beethoven is so fond of, gave them a sharpness, a bite to their elegance. He is the sort of interpreter unafraid of contradiction, rather inviting the listener in to share in the interpretation than declaiming his ideas as we sit back passively. In conversing with him, the orchestra at times had a wonderfully pianistic quality to it, especially the rounded, droplet-like pizzicato, which seemed more struck than plucked, as if the orchestra were trying to understand this piano sitting in front of it. Kovacevich seems to have made a speciality of the 4th Concerto but seems not in the least tired of it, on the contrary he seems deeply sensitive to this music, as if an artist encountering it the for the first time.

Ashkenazy says that the programs in program music “are simply there to entertain you.” It is worth re-quoting Ashkenazy’s remark on Strauss’ Alpine Symphony (as quoted in the program): “It’s not program music!” Words cannot add anything to music (unless they are part of it as in songs or opera) rather they hold it back because the point of instrumental music is to be free of verbal language. Ashkenazy’s approach seemed Wordsworthian in sensibility. A close emotional relationship with nature was in the music, not least the way she frightens and consoles even more readily than another person can, and a times stands off a bit to awe. Ashkenazy’s wonderful control over the large extended crescendos, timed so dramatically to seem inevitable and overwhelming, even more than the sum of its parts, but still retaining textural detail, the kind of detail CDs seem often to have trouble with, a sound which is round but not a perfectly smooth sphere, like an orb, came into good use, starting from the almost grumbling low strings of the first notes, but too mystical in character to be that human.

The expressiveness of the piece through its instrumentation allows us a particularly close and vivid sensory relationship with it, and gives the talents in the orchestra members something substantial to chew. The horns, off-stage and on, weren’t afraid to use a bit of bite, either for sharpness or more carefree chattering, and off-stage they reflected off the walls of the hall in a fantastic, disorienting way. The trombones were rather brazen and regal, having to give up their supernatural seat to the organ, seeming rather to present the trumpets. The woodwinds flew through their birdsongs lightly at a fast tempo, and contributed to some of the color between the orchestra and the organ, but were perhaps not so exceptionally characterful as on some occasions. The strings were expressive in themselves and en masse with the rest of the orchestra while maintaining a cool freshness but with an earthy organic quality too. Strauss’ short string-quartets-within-the-symphony had a presence and a fascinating sort of close rapport and cellist Catherine Hewgill in particular sounded lovely using the short solos to great expressive effect; the cello here seemed to provide an organic rooting to the music. The organ, with pipes and organist set up together far above the orchestra, even a little above the level of the “gods” seats at the back of the hall, made an interesting effect in its physical separation form the orchestra, about as far above, it seemed, as the harps were from the double basses in the extended orchestra. Already employing registers to give it a serene but unearthly, supernatural timbre rather than roaring and booming, to organ seemed to peer down at us all, though the sound, with the very organic-sounding orchestra, integrated in a comfortably loose, complimentary way.

Parts of the middle of the symphony seemed to drag from sounding a bit arbitrary and too derivative of Mahler’s 7th, though I tend to blame Strauss rather than the performers. Also, the fortissimo woodwinds plus strings could be painfully shrill. But the end of the piece had a mysterious strangeness with a wonderful fresh sound, where the hitherto brightly painted instrumentation fell into relatively simple darkish chords, somewhat mousy in color, of a tightly integrated texture, to seem abstract though not without reference to what had gone on before, as if the music literally dissolved into itself.

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