Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by world-famous pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, performed Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3 with Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov, and Elgar’s Symphony No.1 on 1st July, 2016.
The bassline played by the orchestra in the beginning could have been stronger. Behzod played the first movement with impassioned rigour, but the volume of the piano was at times insufficient and the orchestra often overpowered the piano. At times the piano could not be heard clearly. Clearer melodic direction was also needed, since the performance sometimes seemed to lose the focus in the first movement, despite some impressively attractive moments. The reliance upon the use of the una corda in softer passages narrowed the tonal colour spectrum and reduced the intensity of expression; and the occasionally overuse of sustaining pedal obscured the clarity of melodic line and produced a rather smudged sonority. The brittleness and pain in the music was unfortunately not conveyed in Behzod’s rendition. Nevertheless, the rhythmic vitality was kept throughout the movement and the more ambiguous middle section was played with sensitive touch from Behzod.
The theme of the second movement was in the style of gavotte, played with a sense of engagement and appropriate style. This movement was executed with scintillating phrasing and colourful dynamic gradations. Both the piano and orchestra succeeded to perform this movement with immaculate layering, with the suitable sense of drama. However, one may find Behzod’s rendition of the first variation over-romanticized, and did not really match with the neo-classical style of this piece. This rather depended on the listener’s preference. The rapid second variation was exuberantly and energetically played. Behzod’s tone production here was satisfactory and a wide array of tone colours could be heard. The third variation was given proper emphasis and accented appropriately. The mysterious fourth variation, titled Andante meditativo, was played with sensitivity, but Behzod’s interpretation was not very meditative. There was an attempt to create a crystal-like tone in the right hand. The choice of harmonies by the composer, which one may associate it with Scriabin’s music, was not treated with much attention. The thrilling climax in the fifth variation with a passage of octaves had a high technical demand and was well tackled. The playing had the rhythmic drive and strong sense of pulse. Behzod had given a more convincing account in this variation, although the notes of the wide leaps in the coda still required a little bit more refinement. Behzod also attempted to inter-connect the variations and play the variations with somewhat different approaches, but the different moods displayed in the music were not fully reflected in his playing.
The soloist here needed to have more interaction with the orchestra in the beginning of the third movement. There was a well-planned and effective build-up of climax with careful articulation. Behzod attempted to play with a larger volume by using more body weight, but the volume from the piano was sometimes still insufficient, which was probably due to Behzod’s posture when playing the piano. There was some inventive shaping of the musical materials, but was not fully exhibited due to the limited volume of the piano. There were some moments that the orchestra was slightly out of synchronization with the piano. Yet, the tone colours displayed in the scalic passages marked by leggierissimo were pure and polished. The technical issues, including the double-note scales, octaves, and large chords, were handled with great precision.
In general, Behzod had displayed excellent technical facility, but his interpretation largely lacked the sarcastic, ironic character often found in Prokofiev’s works. In addition, Behzod failed to portray the varying moods hinted by the juxtaposition of contrasting themes in this concerto, particularly in the second movement. Moreover, Behzod’s inability to create a large volume significantly affected the musical outcome in a performance of concerto. Behzod’s relatively low seating position probably led to the wastage of energy during the transmission from the body to the piano.
Behzod played Vivaldi/Bach/Cortot Siciliano from Concerto in D minor, BWV 596 as the encore piece, which was such a treat. There were fabulously rich tones and beautiful voicing in both left hand and right hand. The sheer beauty, purity and transcendental sorrow in this piece was fully revealed. Behzod also carefully created a very smooth legato in left hand in the middle section. The silence after the final note was indeed miraculous, as if the world had become timeless and transformed into eternity.
After the intermission, here came Elgar Symphony No.1. The broad, processional introduction of first movement was played with peace under the baton of Ashkenazy. This performance had nobility, elegance, glory and grandeur, but the transition to Allegro section could have been smoother. In spite of Ashkenazy’s robotic conducting gestures, the musical flow here was generally smooth, though at some point their playing lost the momentum. Ashkenazy had clearly paid attention to the dynamic markings and revealed Elgar’s patriotism and national pride; and however this slightly sloppy performance could not totally emotionally connect the audience with the orchestra. The brass section was sometimes too loud, overpowering other instruments, so a better balance was needed; and the phrasing of the harps was rather awkward.
The second movement was full of splendour and pathos at the same time, with ever-changing moods. The march-like section was played with rhythmic purpose and one could feel the defiance in Elgar’s heart. The struggle between the two main themes by the orchestra also led to listeners’ association with wars, which was indeed an extra-musical message that Elgar probably would like to convey through this Symphony. The latter more tranquil section was executed with much expressiveness and some refreshing moments, with a mysterious ending preparing for the next movement (with attacca).
Here came the third movement, which was heartfelt, radiant and deeply reflective, with rich orchestration. Ashkenazy treated this movement in a tender and lusciously sublime way with a palette of tone colours displayed, which was immensely beautiful. Ashkenazy really allowed the music to breathe and the orchestra’s performance also expressed the deep emotions conjured from the music, having a cleansing effect on the audience. The rich texture of the music was treated with well-considered balance and the melodic line was played with delicacy.
In the fourth movement, there was a constant struggle between the two conflicting musical ideas in the beginning with an increasing intensity, leading to a triumphant conclusion. The frequently used term in the score risoluto was also emphasized. There were noticeable dynamic contrasts and the performance of this movement was truly spectacular, except the slips by the brass section, especially the tuba. The notes were clean and generally precise, despite the increasing complexity among different parts. The most impressive and attractive moment of the whole performance certainly would be the carol-like section marked cantabile with the modulation to A-Flat Major that came after the tempestuous sections. It directly tugged at the listeners’ heartstrings, moving the audience to tears. It was so magical with a high level of imagination, as if the entire audience was floating on the sky and experiencing the peace and sweetness of heaven; and the harp sounded like the voices of angels. There was a restatement of the main theme of the Symphony, with extremely grandioso playing, ending with a powerful chord from the full orchestra.
Some criticize Ashkenazy for his plain interpretation and the lack of originality in his performance. After this concert, it is not difficult to observe that Ashkenazy’s charisma indeed came from his sincerity towards music and the composer, which shares some similarities with Sviatoslav Richter’s views on interpretation. Richter said, “The interpreter is really an executant, carrying out the composer's intentions to the letter. He doesn't add anything that isn't already in the work.” Ashkenazy did not try to impress or amaze the audience by exaggerating the dynamics, or distorting the composer’s intention. Instead, the key elements in his interpretation were sincerity and attention to details, which aided Ashkenazy as an architect of the music.
Ashkenazy once said, “I believe that interpretation should be like a transparent glass, a window for the composer's music.”