Philharmonia Orchestra: Ashkenazy conducts Shostakovich

The Philharmonia's performance of works by Britten and Shostakovich at the Royal Festival Hall was a celebration of music, with a lively Cello Concerto no. 2 with Sol Gabetta and a remarkable account of Shostakovich's final symphony. Conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

London Music: Philharmonia Orchestra © Benjamin Ealovega
Philharmonia Orchestra © Benjamin Ealovega
Philharmonia Orchestra
© Benjamin Ealovega
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Britten's Death in Venice suite, arranged by Steuart Bedford, is a continuous piece of music taken from the opera. As such, it is an extremely scenic work and even though it has its moments, I could not help but long for the actual opera rather than these excerpts (thankfully it will be performed by ENO later this year). The suite starts off rather calmly, but soon we found out that the stars of the piece were the percussion instruments. The sound of the multiple vibraphones playing is stunning and should give us the desire to move, but everything remained a little flat. Perhaps the interpretation was a on the slow side, as the piece never managed to truly take off.

In contrast, Shostakovich's Cello Concerto no. 2 took off from the first minute. Sol Gabetta threw her heart and soul into the concerto, and Vladimir Ashkenazy loosened the reins on the orchestra, which lead to a fantastic performance. There is hardly a moment of rest for the soloist in the concerto, but Gabetta was more than up to the challenge: from start to finish her performance was energetic, passionate and precise. The second movement (Allegretto) saw her lead the orchestra in a dance that soon turned into something slightly more manic, smoothly transitioning to the final movement (also Allegretto). In this movement everything comes together, and wild, frenzied moments are contrasted with serene harmonies until finally the cello dissolves in a low D.

The energy exhibited by Gabetta, Ashkenazy and the orchestra suited this concerto beautifully. Written in 1966, Shostakovich was already ailing at the time of its composition. Despite the state of his health, the piece is lively and powerful, with extremely memorable melodies. This piece and the Symphony no. 15 at the very least show us that for Shostakovich illness leads not only to low spirits, but also to a celebration of music.

The Symphony no. 15 by Shostakovich is a showpiece. It is typical Shostakovich in many ways, with angular woodwinds, loud percussion and passionate strings, but the symphony is much more than that. Famously, it contains quotations from other composers such as Rossini and Wagner, and many of his own works. The William Tell quotation played by the trumpets throughout the first movement elicited many a giggle from people in the audience, and rightly so. It is an undoubtedly tongue-in-cheek move by Shostakovich, though it is one that he deemed necessary, and one he could not explain his reasons for.

The Fifteenth Symphony is the last purely orchestral work Shostakovich wrote. In contrast to the Fifteenth String Quartet, it does not sound like an elegy or a requiem. It celebrates life, and above all it celebrates music. The quotations from his own work and that of other composers only add to this understanding of the symphony. And when an orchestra like the Philharmonia plays a performance as convincing as this evening's, it is impossible not to be in awe of the work.

Celebrating not only music in general, but also the orchestra and what orchestras are capable of, it contains solos for first violin, cello, double bass, and multiple woodwind and brass instruments. Musicians are required to play their best and perhaps even show off a little. It is not often that I can find myself at a concert that truly expresses how important it is to hear live music. We can listen to symphonies in the comfort of our home, but those moments will never be as meaningful and powerful and seeing them performed live.

It was not until I heard the Philharmonia's performance of this symphony that I realised its strength, and that says not only something about the music, but something about the performance as well. From the high-energy opening movement to the subdued and stripped-down nature of the second movement, the Philharmonia's instruments flowed into each other. The percussion section of the orchestra were on fine form, as in both the previous pieces this evening, but it was the many instrumental solos that truly impressed. Cellist Timothy Walden's solo in the second movement was intense and emotional, thereby doing Shostakovich more than justice.

Britten, Benjamin (1913-1976), Death in Venice, Op.88 (arr. Steuart Bedford)
Shostakovich, Dmitri (1906-1975), Cello Concerto no. 2 in G major, Op.126
Shostakovich, Dmitri (1906-1975), Symphony no. 15 in A major, Op.141
Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy, Conductor
Sol Gabetta, Cello
Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts Shostakovich with the Philharmonia - Cello Concerto No 2 with soloist Sol Gabetta and Symphony No.15. The concert opens with Britten's Death in Venice.

A fascinating programme that finds two creative giants, towards the end of their respective careers, composing with bracing inventiveness and insight.

The unbearably poignant Death in Venice was Britten's final opera, composed as a tribute to his beloved partner, the tenor Peter Pears.

This was during the early 1970s when Shostakovich was concurrently working on his last Symphony, a tour-de-force of coruscating ingenuity that includes a number of musical quotations, including a snippet from Rossini's William Tell.

When asked about it, Shostakovich reasoned that, 'I don't quite know myself why the quotations are there, but I could not not include them.'

Southbank Centre: Royal Festival Hall

Belvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX

Image credits:
Philharmonia Orchestra © Benjamin Ealovega