AVERY FISHER HALL: JANUARY 9, 2002–Vladimir Ashkenazy and London’s Philharmonia Orchestra brought the long-delayed Rachmaninov series at Avery Fisher Hall to a close with two of the composer’s better-known works: the grandiose Third Piano Concerto, and the Symphonic Dances. The sense of occasion was palpable, as this three-day retrospective was sadly postponed because of the terrible events of Sept. 11. Adding stress to the upcoming event was news that the scheduled soloist, Mikhail Pletnev, was indisposed due to a pinched nerve. Garrick Ohlssohn was pressed into service on short notice, and, true professional that he is, offered a perfectly respectable, if ultimately unexciting, reading.
To be sure, Ohlssohn played the work accurately and with assurance. Precision was the hallmark of his performance; you could hear every note in every run and his startling fingerwork in the third movement was breathtaking. And despite the suspect acoustics of Fisher Hall, the orchestra rarely drowned out the soloist, which occurs all too frequently in live performances of this work (and the Second Concerto as well, for that matter). Still, the necessary intensity was lacking, especially in the monstrously difficult first movement cadenza. Conductor Ashkenazy, who himself has played this work as a soloist countless times and might have added some insight, provided a surprisingly uninvolving accompaniment that only reached a fever pitch in the last pages of the third movement, thanks mainly to the blazing sound of the Philharmonia’s principal trumpet.
Having barely broken a sweat during the Concerto and beaming from the requisite New York standing ovation, Ohlssohn graced the audience with the Prelude in C# minor as an encore. This was a wistful, contemplative reading, with the opening chords slow and deliberate; the whole prelude seemed more of a reverie in Ohlssohn’s hands, not the overexposed showpiece that it has become. If only he’d shown similar imagination in the concerto, a work that could use a good rethinking now and then!
The second half of the program was dedicated to the delightfully quirky Symphonic Dances (1940). Ashkenazy, a conductor who is never easy to watch because of his abrupt, nervous technique, gave us a glimpse of these dances through the lens of Ravel (or, really, Boulez). He extracted crystalline textures from the massed ensemble in a performance that sacrificed impact for intimate detail. His reading featured supple winds (scintillating flute runs in the second movement, and a lovely saxophone solo in the first), terrific brass, and responsive string playing (the concertmaster provided a lusty solo in the second movement as well).
In the final analysis, though, the performance lacked drama and force (those slashing tutti chords in the first movement, for example), and oddly there was a complete lack of deep bass from the strings evident everywhere in the piece–in this reviewer’s experience an odd feature of many British orchestras. The percussion section, which dominates the climaxes of the third movement, only really came to life in the closing measures with a whirling cacophony of timpani, cymbals, tambourine, bass drum and tam-tam. How unfortunate that the audience started to clap before the tam-tam player could even finish his extended final crash (it’s marked “let it vibrate” in the score).–Michael Liebowitz