Ashkenazy brings enthusiasm, but lacks profundity

At the age of 81, Vladimir Ashkenazy appearing tonight with the Southbank Sinfonia, appears to have lost none of his warm and engaging manner.

The legendary pianist, providing clear evidence here of his rapport and engagement with the young orchestra immerses himself in the art of conducting with energy and animation. The interaction with his young charges suggested that of a supportive, encouraging father figure, while the musicians appear to hold the great maestro in awe.

The programme was focused on each composer’s own musical interpretations of previous eras, particularly those of the dance form – Grieg looking back to the age of Ludvig Holberg with his Holberg Suite, Prokofiev harking back to the era of Haydn with his Classical Symphony and Beethoven with his rhythmically inventive Symphony no.7 exploring the popular dances of his day.

The quality of the evening’s performance started at a very high level and was sustained all the way through the Grieg, but sadly declined gradually through the Prokofiev and into the Beethoven. It was unfortunate as the opening work was performed with genuine pizzazz and polish – the strings sounded sleek and rich, the execution was tightly controlled and dynamics observed accurately throughout.

On reflection, this may have been a result of Grieg writing the work originally for solo piano, later orchestrating it for a concert to commemorate the 200th birthday of the man to whom it was dedicated. This was not a work which contained the deep complexity for example, of an Elgar symphony where there is a requirement for carefully managed intricacies and tonal balances. This being the case or otherwise, there was no fault to be found with this delivery of the Holberg Suite.

Before the Prokofiev commenced, we were treated to a brief commentary from the orchestra’s engaging and knowledgeable Viola player. Ashkenazy clearly enjoyed driving this account of his countryman’s famous 1st symphony – grinning throughout and contorting his frame with urgency to emphasise key accents and crescendos.

Some of the individual playing began to suffer in places and an element of sloppiness crept in leading to a loss of unity and clarity in a number of passages.

Regrettably, things did not improve with the evening’s final item. The chosen tempo with which Beethoven’s 7th began was much too slow and ponderous, the marching scales sounding more like elderly veterans than pumped up Napoleonic soldiers. Arriving at the interplay between woodwind and strings, the flautist tried her best to inject some pace and vitality into the start of the 2nd subject. She partially succeeded, but her efforts were diminished by dynamics that we either too extreme or lacked sufficient punch to really justify the true energy of this work.

The famous funereal slow movement was performed without error, but arguably too dry and stiff to carry the real depth of which this work can contain. A brief ray of sunshine present itself in the vivacious 3rd movement – sprightly and cheerful, this was the closest Ashkenazy and his orchestra came to a satisfying rendition of the Beethoven. Sadly, the chaotic, whirling final movement shaped up to be nothing more than a cacophony of sound – muddled and disjointed. The French horns at vital points made jarring mistakes and at one point, the woodwind section appeared to have forgotten to play their line! Accidents can happen, but this seemed pretty underwhelming.

The conclusion that might be drawn from tonight’s performance is that whilst Ashkenazy (rightly so) remains an exalted musical figure, his strengths lay more obviously in the art of pianism than that of conducting.