Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia received the largest ovation I have seen for a visiting orchestra in Manchester, delighting a packed Bridgewater Hall with popular works by Sibelius, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. Despite very occasional technical inaccuracies, there were some exquisitely memorable moments.
Sibelius' Finlandia ties in neatly with an otherwise all-Russian programme. Ashkenazy’s direction certainly highlighted the Russian elements of the piece, with several moments vividly bringing to mind the composer’s Symphony no. 1 in E minor of the same year (1899). The introduction was suitably brooding, and after a slightly ragged transition to the Allegro, the subsequent tempo was carried along at a stately rather than frenetic tempo, adding a certain bleakness to the dark, barren music.
When the famous hymn tune appeared, the woodwind gave a pleasing first verse, before the single most magical moment of the concert. Ashkenazy turned to the first violins for the second verse, ushering them in with the most meticulous, delicate care in his beat and utmost devotion to the melody, teasing out an incredibly beautiful account of it. The level of care applied to the handling of the tune produced a spine-tingling sound, and the remaining minutes of the piece felt almost superfluous.
There were similar moments of profound beauty in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, even if a broader sense of the work's architecture was not particularly apparent. Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is a popular man locally, after several successful collaborations with the BBC Philharmonic, and his playing, particularly in the slow movement, showed why. He found extraordinarily lovely expressive touch in the Adagio despite a fairly forward looking tempo, immaculately shaping each phrase into elegant strands. Soloist and first violins combined very well, with similarly careful attention paid to the details of the music, as in Finlandia. Elsewhere, Bavouzet played with impressive power and drama. There were a couple of minor technical inaccuracies, but these were easily glossed over by the playing in the slow movement. The intensity of the finale was dramatically ramped up in the central quick passage, and again near the end, before a full-blooded and heartfelt last few minutes.
The same broad principles applied to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E minor: there were many moments of enormous success, but the long structure was less apparent. The main theme of the first movement rang out with brilliant colour in the flute and first violins, much aided by the clear textures maintained by Ashkenazy. Once again, the strings' handling of melody was excellent, with every articulative touch spot on in coordination within the section. The early tutti brass passages threatened to be somewhat overpowering, but by the end of the movement the last major climax felt far better earned.
Along with the strings' account of the Finlandia hymn, the other especially memorable moment from this evening was Katy Woolley’s extended horn solo in the Andante; this was given the most original and beautiful playing I have heard. The descending quaver figures were played with full attention to the various articulation marks along with gorgeous quality of sound and hugely impressive control at very soft dynamics. Later on there was something quite touchingly optimistic in the way Ashkenazy pushed ahead with the melody, paving the way for the pleasingly skittish, playful third movement.
The finale passed from its bold, warm opening in the low strings through pleasantly reflective playing before a lively and dashing central passage. Here there was tremendous bite in the strings and furious, sparkling energy from all corners. The coda was as heroic as could be hoped for, leading to a triumphant conclusion and almighty ovation for Ashkenazy and the orchestra.
The much loved conductor had been a particular joy to observe all night: he jogged on and off the stage at each opportunity, laughing and joking with his players as he went, distributed his flowers to the front desk violinists at the end, and after his final bow insisted on the orchestra leaving the stage before he did. The sense of affection for his musicianship from both audience and orchestra was clearly apparent.