For the Brahms First Symphony, Ashkenazy used the orchestra’s fine clarity to illuminate the ideas in the score, loyally keeping a certain respect for the composer, though his conducting was in no way conservative or overly careful, enough so that it made me wonder again why some people call Brahms ‘autumnal.’ Perhaps this clarity of playing which articulates each note also allows Ashkenazy the fine control he needs for his well-defined ideas of interpretation which come across to the listener so plainly.
It was good news that Vladimir Ashkenazy renewed his contract as artistic director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra through 2013. 2012 will be his fourth season with the SSO and the orchestra’s 80th anniversary. The Maestro will spend four months in Sydney conducting the orchestra himself in the summers at either end of the year, opening in February with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and ending in December with a concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera Queen of Spades. In his Mahler cycle especially, ending this year, Ashkenazy has shown how he is as excellent an interpreter of symphonies as of piano music, with an attention to detail and rapport with the musicians which brings out their best and an approach to the music which is genuine and strongly felt yet restrained, coming from a deep respect for and empathy with the composer. As a master pianist, he has a natural talent for choosing soloists — especially pianists — not least including 2011 invitees and collaborators Jean Efflam-Bavouzet and Stephen Osborne. As a complement to his good judgement, the Sydney Symphony’s expansion into organizer of international soloists’ recitals was an excellent idea, giving us concert goers a chance to hear the soloists on their own, after their concerti with Ashkenazy. These recitals brought some wonderful and seldom heard music to Sydney in 2011, though there is some repetition in 2012’s programs of certain pieces by Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt.
Richard Strauss once wondered about Mahler, to his face I believe, ‘Why don’t you write an opera? You could write such a good opera since you’ve put on so many at the Wiener Staatsoper.’ He didn’t understand and Mahler got pretty angry. In a way Mahler’s symphonies are operas without singers, a sort of total art, in a subjective sense — if that term doesn’t require total sensory stimulation — with vivid use of color and articulate deep expression. The level of abstraction attained by giving up words and human voices enabled him to express more faithfully what really gripped him. The Ninth, like all good symphonies, even more so for Mahler’s but especially in his Ninth, it is a multitude of contents, often all at the same time — ambiguity and paradox seem easily expressed, even refined in Mahler. Vladimir Ashkenazy’s and each of the instrumentalists’ attention and care for each melody, theme, chord and layer in the music make this so clear even as the complexity of the music seems to nourish them; they generously create something fascinating and consoling to listen to — in fact partly because of its complexity it sticks with the listener long afterward.
In a way it is pointless to try to write words on music like this, but here goes anyway. It doesn’t really help to read glib selective quotations from even the composer describing the music, sometimes in a single word, “tragic,” “fate,” “Heldenmord” fail to do justice while missweighing one idea, like a greedy fruit grocer. The Mahlers deep and checkered feelings about his Sixth Symphony are clearer from this quotation from Alma Mahler’s memoirs, even if it does sound ambiguous or contradictory at one level: