Vladimir Ashkenazy may be the second most well-known turtleneck after the late Steve Jobs. After being one of the most visible musicians in the world for some decades, he is still on the rise. One reason I experienced last night with him conducting the Hong Kong Philharmonic is his increasingly fiery and passionate interpretation of frequently heard pieces.
I am no fans of Mr. Ashkenazy. I am not particularly impressed by his earlier recordings of Sergei Rachmaninov concerti and, perhaps more so, Mozart concerti that lack certain character. Twelve years ago I heard him conducting Mahler’s seventh symphony in Hong Kong; not a good experience either. But his recent recordings with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, especially the Rachmaninov third symphony that I reviewed earlier, surprised me by its sheer passion and brisk.
The Saturday evening’s concert opens with Don Juan. The strings quickly get those rising semiquavers in good shape. The performance lacks no electricity; the brass is impressive and the strings resolute. Particularly praise worthy is the orchestra’s handling of overly long phrases, providing a lot of thrusts. Richard Strauss has written some of the most beautiful solos for the orchestra, and they do it well; naturally Mr. Ashkenazy asks the oboe and the horns tutti to stand up during the curtain call.
Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling follows with Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. Although her voice a bit too tense, Ms. Tilling has performed with wonderful musicality, especially with her grasp of extended phrasings over subtle harmony changes. She manages the most pressing moments at the right time and right intensity, and perhaps in the right word too: the explosion of “Zauberkreis” after a long flight in the third song Beim Schlafengehen is more than magic. She does not appear fully absorbed at last, but her voice transports us to the barren land where the aged composer felt totally resigned; there’s hope, but unfortunately it is not within reach. Her last line “Ist dies etwa der Tod?” was barely audible.
Further crowning Ms. Tilling’s glory is an encore of an early love song of Strauss Cäcilie.
The fifth symphony of Jean Sibelius is a pivotal work of his. After lengthy revision, he made this a very organic work, with small ideas growing big and magnificent. The orchestra manages a good vocal clarity at a cellular level, the entire strings section deserve a big applause here. They have made the very small gestures clearly articulated with a reasonable unity.
Mr. Ashkenazy, however, has some bigger works to do. With his unusual body movement, he sways and the music moves on. The horn section, while having shone brightly in Don Juan, picks up a different tone and puncture the dense strings foreground. I have never heard this orchestra as colourful as this. The first movement is growing naturally, albeit rather reserved in the slow beginning; after the allegro moderato, the music enlivens. With a lengthy build up, Mr. Ashkanezy allows no lost of concentration from his musicians and pushes the envelop. The ending is explosive. The second movement is calm, although the sourness at the end is toned down a bit. The glorious swan theme is heard in the horn and also in the very solid double bass. The movement is stately played and I am particularly happy with how it ends: those six chords are sonorous and uniform.
A friend of mine draws my attention to the newly appointed horn principal Jiang Lin, who has recorded Mozart horn concerto under Barry Tuckwell. The evening’s music is undoubtedly horn-biased; the hornists have duly do their jobs to impress us.
Date: May 25, 2013
Venue: Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall
Vladimir Ashkenazy photo © Keith Saunders