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June 20, 2005

Tuppence Coloured - Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts the St. Petersburg Philarmonia

Posted by David Conway

St. Petersburg Philarmonia Orchestra
conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy
Shostakovich Hall, St. Petersburg
17th June 2005

The June Music Festival in St. Petersburg got off to a curious start. All but one of the pieces in the opening concert was in some way or another a transcription of music written for the piano. And even the one piece indubitably written to involve an orchestra, Chopin's First Piano Concerto, sounds happiest when the orchestra is forgotten and we can concentrate on the solo instrument.

The conductor himself was a transcription in at least two senses: the Russian, and then Icelandic, pianist, and now conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy. I am confident that the ambiguous nature of his own position and that of the concert programme were not lost on him. A refugee from Russia after his international career as a virtuoso blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s, (an episode discreetly omitted from the potted biography offered to Russian audiences), and chief conductor of the London Philharmonic between 1987 and 1994, he is justifiably received in his home country as a musical hero.

Transcriptions reflect something of the battle between the piano and the rest of the musical world in the early nineteenth century. The age of the virtuoso produced a spate of dazzlers on the piano and violin, but only the piano with its true ability to play chords, parts and melody simultaneously had the power to hold an audience in awe by itself (unless the violinist was the unique Paganini). Simple keyboard arrangements of opera scores had been around since the late eighteenth century, but now pianists vied with each other to produce elaborate and showy variations and réminiscences of the latest operatic hits. Few of these survive in today's repertoire, with the exception of those of Liszt who took the whole process transcendentally further – although we can remember that Chopin introduced himself to the Western European concert world with his fantasy for piano and orchestra on Mozart's Là ci darem, (occasioning Schumann's eulogy, "Hats off, gentlemen, a genius").

Where Liszt and Chopin scored, against the army of forgotten Pixises, Thalbergs, Kalkbrenners and such, was that their superb technical skill as players was matched with a true musicianly interest in the sounds that their instrument produced. Paganini had shown the way in demonstrating the undreamt of possibilities of the violin. The great pianist composers did the same for their instrument – Liszt and Schumann via, amongst other experiments, transcribing Paganini's violin caprices for the keyboard. At the same time Berlioz was writing for the orchestra in an idiom which to many professional musicians such as Mendelssohn seemed to mark him out as fit only for the madhouse (and just a little later Wagner's orchestral handling was also the subject of aggressive debate). A whole new world of sound, unlocked perhaps by the late works of Beethoven, was becoming available – and 19th century audiences, avid for novelty, lapped it up.

The "heroic tradition" of great piano transcriptions of orchestral music was therefore a defiance by the virtuoso that he (it was always a he) could more than match any other instrument or group of instruments. Seek out, for example, the ancient Lhévinne recording (from piano rolls) of Schutz-Evler's version of Strauss's Blue Danube and prepare to be astonished. Perhaps the last of these super-virtuosi was the magisterial Cuban pianist Jorge Bolet, whom I remember playing Chopin études made even more complex by Godowsky with doubled thirds and sixths. Whatever its musical value, such playing is utterly thrilling. This tradition is not entirely lost, I am glad to say; last year I heard an imposing, and musically beautiful, performance in London by Yonty Solomon of the Busoni transcription of the Bach violin chaconne.

The orchestration of masterpieces written for other media on the other hand seems to have started off rather later. It only became a marketable proposition of course when there were enough symphony concerts, and audiences to hear them, to make such efforts worthwhile. But perhaps there was also an element of revenge by orchestral composers to demonstrate the superiority of their own craft now that the golden age of the virtuoso seemed over. Whereas keyboard arrangements showed how, innovatively, to squash a quart into a pint pot, orchestrations could turn relatively penny-plain textures into glorious Techincolor. Tchaikovsky's Mozartiana and Mahler's transcription of Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet are simultaneously homages and demonstrations of the later composers' ingenuity. Brahms's orchestration of his piano duet variations on the St. Anthony Chorale (and Bizet's version of his piano duet suite Jeux d'Enfants), are also examples of good housekeeping - why waste good material if you have an orchestral concert to fill? (Schoenberg's ingenious downsizing of Strauss waltzes for chamber ensemble is a typical example of the composer being contrary).

And so to Ashkenazy's programme, of which the first half was Chopin and quasi-Chopin, the second half Ravel and quasi-Ravel. We opened with two orchestrations by Glazunov, of Chopin's C sharp minor waltz op. 64 no. 2 and the Tarantella op. 43. These were written as part of a suite, no doubt inspired by Tchaikovsky's rejigging of Mozart. Later the orchestrations were expanded to form the basis for Fokine's ballet, Chopiniana. As background to great dancing these arrangements might suffice but as transcriptions of Chopin's intentions they fall far short of the mark. Whereas, for example, pianists can inflect tempo and touch so that the left-hand accompaniments in the waltz melt and sway, played by the brass section they become any old oom-pah-pah. Glazunov, one of the musical talents who held the ring of Russian tradition during the transition from Empire to Soviet, is still highly regarded in Russia and his symphonies and especially his violin concerto deserve performance; but these arrangements could be consigned to limbo without regret.

Alexander Ghindin as soloist in Chopin's First Concerto gave an attractive account of what I have always felt to be a weak work. The first movement promises pomp but its structure is rambling and unconvincing. We sense the composer's unique gifts only from the second movement, where Ghindin's combination of velvet touch, long phrasing and attention to detail were exemplary. These qualities were further displayed in his encore of a Chopin nocturne.

As with his predecessors Chopin, Berlioz and Debussy, it is Ravel's acute sensitivity to the world of sound and timbre which distinguishes his music, creating a sound-world that is immediately identifiable as his own. The success of his most popular concert work, his orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures from an Exhibition, testifies to his unmatched ability at mapping and enriching piano sonorities onto the orchestra. He also orchestrated some of his own piano works, and we heard the early Pavane pour un infante défunte as well as two pieces from the suite Miroirs: Une barque sur l'océan and Alborada del grazioso, the one reflective, the other spectacular. We also heard the other pieces from Miroirs orchestrated by different hands, and these were far less successful in performance. Ravel clearly knew what he was doing when he selected only two from the suite: the other pieces, like the Chopin waltz, are too rooted in the nature of the piano to be transplanted.

To close the concert came a spectacular performance of La valse. This "choreographic poem" is a work in its own right but nevertheless draws on some of the melodies of Ravel's piano sequence Valses nobles et sentimentales. Since its origins the waltz has been a metaphor for sexual possession and Ravel, by turns witty, grotesque and terrifying, drives this metaphor unmistakably home – this is a transcription of some very basic instincts. Ashkenazy masterfully controlled this sonic orgasm, evoking glittering ensemble playing from the orchestra, into its grinding and shattering climax.

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