Tuesday, April 5, 2011


April 3

This time around, applause for the players.

Russian pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy brings a lot of baggage when he comes to Prague. And we’re not talking about suitcases. Ashkenazy was the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic from 1998 to 2003, and when he left that position, he didn’t go quietly. In an interview with Alan Levy of The Prague Post, he said it was a great experience but complained about the players’ bad attitudes, fostered by the chronic complaint that they don’t get paid enough.

I was told by many members of the orchestra that they lack motivation,” he said. “I feel a lot of resentment coming from them...I’m worried for the future of the orchestra, because to compete with the greatest orchestras in the world, you have to give your best every time...I’d hope they think about what I’m saying to you and take themselves in hand – their own hands.”

So it was probably good that the Czech Philharmonic and most of the city’s music establishment were at Prague Castle Sunday night for a high-profile benefit concert to aid relief efforts in Japan. That left Ashkenazy free to bask in the adulation of a nearly full house at his old haunt, the Rudolfinum, where he bounced onstage, leaped to the podium and plunged immediately into Pavel Haas’ Study for Strings.

The orchestra pairing was ideal. Ashkenazy enjoys working with young musicians and has a knack for bringing out their best, a talent he’s demonstrated in his work as music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra. The Philharmonia is the youngest orchestra in Prague, loaded with talented players who take instruction well. They responded positively, working hard to give Ashkenazy what he wanted, earning a beaming two thumbs-up from the conductor at the end of the concert.

Unfortunately, the synergy wasn’t apparent in the Haas piece, which was out of balance and too bright in both sound and spirit. The timbre was quite high, almost lacking a bottom, and the music was energetic and cheerful. As many commentators have noted, for a work written by a doomed man in a concentration camp, Study for Strings is remarkably buoyant, a brilliant statement of human resolve. But there wasn’t a single dark tone in this performance; the piece sounded more like music from the 19th than the 20th century.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 (K. 488) was better, with Ashkenazy showing a fine sensitivity for the textures and nuances of the work, and striking a better balance in the sound. The piece was a replacement for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 (Op. 58), which Ashkenazy’s son Vovka was scheduled to perform. But he fell ill, so Czech pianist Ivo Kahánek was recruited as a last-minute substitute. It’s too bad – the father-son combination was the principal attraction of the evening, and it would have been fascinating to watch them work together.

Kahánek is a fine pianist, but Mozart is not his usual material. He came out on stage accompanied by a page-turner and played the concerto very conservatively, without any risks or notable interpretation. The term “covering” a song came to mind. But just to show what he can really do, Kahánek came back with a rousing encore of the “Dupak” section from Martinů’s Three Czech Dances.

Putting a spin on Pavel Haas.
This reviewer made his own adjustment for the second half, changing to a seat near the bass and cello sections that compensated for the sound imbalance. That added considerable depth to Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, which Ashkenazy rendered in warm tones, ripe with emotion that built to a glowing finish. There were no more than hints at the dark undercurrents in the piece, but that seemed fine with the audience, which responded with enthusiastic applause.

Ravel’s La Tombeau de Couperin was the most satisfying piece of the evening, fresh and high-spirited, even radiant in spots. If some details were missing – the oboe solos in particular call for virtuoso playing – the energy of the performance and close attention to the composer’s intricate orchestration made up for it nicely.

The Ravel suite also showcased Ashkenazy’s chief strength – his versatility across a variety of periods and styles. While none of his versions of the four pieces were definitive, there aren’t many conductors who can handle that range of material with competency and flair. It all sounds Romantic in Ashkenazy’s hands. But this time around, nobody was complaining.

For more on Vladimir Ashkenazy: http://www.vladimirashkenazy.com/

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