Legendary Vladimir Ashkenazy continues to inspire the masses, as witnessed by his recent shows at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas.
The eminent Russian-born conductor maestro Vladimir Ashkenazy doesn’t look as if he’s aged a single year since his last visit to Malaysian shores back in 2002.
Long time local classical fans will remember his previous visits, even though it’s been 12 years since his last, to guest conduct the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) for the second time in his illustrious career that has spanned almost the last six decades.
Prior to that, he has also performed at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas (DFP) with the Czech Philharmonic in 1998 and Philharmonia Orchestra in 2000.
It is almost as if nothing has changed in his gentlemanly demeanour over theyears. And he seems to have a special spark while on tour as Ashkenazy, belying his 77 year-old frame, was clearly upright and looking in robust health as he took the stage to guest conduct the MPO last weekend (Oct 31 and Nov 1) at the DFP in Kuala Lumpur.
This writer visited the performance on Nov 1. In his long and illustrious career, Ashkenazy has been one of the few artistes to combine a successful career as pianist and conductor. He has held positions with prominent orchestras such as the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic and the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Besides conducting, which has formed the larger part of his activities for the past 30 years, Ashkenazy has an extraordinarily comprehensive recording catalogue under his belt; the Grammy-award winning Shostakovich’s Preludes And Fugues, and Rachmaninov’s vast piano music. One recent release alone encompasses half a century’s worth of recorded output when, in 2013, music label Decca released a 50-CD box set titled Ashkenazy: 50 Years On Decca.
At this stage although the pianist era of his career may have passed on, there is nothing to indicate that Ashkenazy is ready to hang up his baton as a conductor. As Conductor Laureate he conducts the Philharmonia till today, and he’s also Conductor Laureate also for the Iceland and the NHK Symphony Orchestras.
Before appearing in Kuala Lumpur, Ashkenazy, who has both Icelandic and Swiss citizenship, had his spirits lifted when he led the Hong Kong Philharmonic in two free concerts at the Grand Hall on the Centennial Campus of the University of Hong Kong late last month. A total of 1,600 tickets were snapped up for these shows.
This visit to Malaysia to conduct the MPO saw Ashkenazy delivering a programme made up of popular favourites by two composers, each the most famous in his respective country, Finland’s Jean Sibelius, and the Czech Republic’s (Bohemia in his day) Antonin Dvorak.
From the Sibelious vaults, Finlandia, The Swan Of Tuonela and the Karelia Suite (all written in the early mid 1890s and eventually premièred before the end of that century) were performed, while Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, first premièred in 1890, filled up the second half of the night’s offerings.
Starting off the evening with the inspiring Finlandia, Ashkenazy led the orchestra through the orchestral work that evoked Sibelius’ bold and rugged expression of love for one’s homeland. This work carries Sibelius’ nationalistic spirit against the Russian occupation of Finland in the early 20th century. Even though there was that tiny little bit of shakiness, with the brass section just a tiny shade of being wayward in synchronisation during the second half of the piece, it was otherwise solid enough.
The next work, The Swan Of Tuonela, a symphonic poem that was the only part (the prologue) of an eventually abandoned opera that survived, was a delight.
As a backstory, this piece was later expanded with three more orchestral pieces to collectively become known as the Four Legends From The Kalevala, a historic Finnish epic in the nation’s literature and myth.
It was a much cleaner performance by the MPO with this work, beginning with the exquisite strings, oboe and cello solo introduction, followed by an almost melancholic rendition with some delicate harp touches thrown in.
The three movements of the Karelia Suite Op. 11, were taken from a series of music pieces Sibelius himself composed called Karelia Music, which depicted scenes from the history of the Finnish and Russian regions of Karelia.
One could find no fault with the rendition, starting off with march like Intermezzo, with the French horns leading the way to the background of muted trumpets accompanying them. From then on, the lighter touch and excellent timing for this 14-minute piece of music was a joy to listen to.
For the second half, the music of Dvorak was portrayed in the popular Symphony No. 8, which has been described by many in history as having a genial carefree spirit with idyllic moods and evocations of nature and simple rustic life.
With the MPO in confident stride, it sounded like Ashkenazy’s magic was stirring up the hall. He pushed the orchestra to go more for the flow of the music rather than emphasising too much on volume, avoiding too much of it, until it was absolutely necessary for the trumpet fanfare, followed by the cellos to open the final movement of this four movement. At a duration of just under 35 minutes for this interpretation, it is considered one of the shorter symphonies in classical music.
In fact, it was clear to this writer by then that for all the pieces that evening, Ashkenazy pushed for a more animated as opposed to a heavy approach and style; the music was performed arguably a little quicker than usual in other interpretations listed in literature and recordings.
Nevertheless, it did not feel rushed or hurried in any way, making for a less ponderous, more light hearted approach, more suited to his style and demeanour without compromising his renowned firmness of direction.
In more ways than one, Ashkenazy was conducting a somewhat new generation of the MPO that had taken shape over the last few seasons, with even the orchestra looking somewhat reduced in number. Programme notes indicated a fair few musicians had been contracted in to boost numbers for this programme, but nevertheless the evening’s music was well played out under the steady hand of such a venerated guest conductor as Ashkenazy.