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Philharmonia Orchestra: Grieg, Brahms, Dvořák

As part of the continuing Boldfield Orchestral series at The Corn Exchange, The Philharmonia Orchestra on Saturday evening paid its second visit to Cambridge in the same month.

On the 1st November it was under its Principal Conductor Designate, Santu-Matias Rouvali. This time, the last day of the month, it was with its legendary Conductor Laureate, Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Vladimir Ashkenazy (23332000)
Vladimir Ashkenazy (23332000)

Before the concert began, however, Maestro Ashkenazy invited the audience to join him and the orchestra to observe some moments of silence in memory of those who had been murdered by a terrorist action at London Bridge the previous day.

Whereas some can create and others only destroy, the programme of works which followed represented everything that at its best the human spirit is capable of achieving.

Grieg’s Holberg Suite was written to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Danish dramatist Ludvig Baron Holberg. It comprises 5 sections, alternating between dance forms from Holberg’s time, some movements vigorous and melodic (1st & 5th) others, introspective, almost Bach-like (2nd & 4th).

Often played separately is Movement 3, a Gavotte, whose infectious melody full of joie de vivre has made it perhaps the best known of the 5.

The Philharmonia gave its customary polished performance to this short captivating work, full of Grieg’s melodic capability and invention that places it firmly at the heart of Scandinavian culture.

Vladimir Ashkenazy (23331996)
Vladimir Ashkenazy (23331996)

The central work of the concert was the Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77 by Brahms, one of the great concertos for the instrument requiring immense stamina, concentration and virtuosic ability from its performer.

In Cambridge to play it on Saturday was the young internationally acclaimed violinist, Sayaka Shoji, first Japanese winner of the prestigious Paganini Competition, and in 1999 the youngest ever winner of it.

Sayaka performed the concerto on a Stradivarius violin, made in 1729 and named ‘The Récamier Stradivarius’, because Napoleon had given it to Madame Juliette Récamier, a French beauty and socialite of the early C19th.

Listening to it in Sayaka Shoji’s hands, therefore, was like being a privileged witness to a part of history itself.

Sayaka Shoji (23332004)
Sayaka Shoji (23332004)

The lengthy first movement with its complex and demanding cadenza was breathtakingly performed, as was the pure lyricism of the slow movement. Sayaka concluded the concerto in its Hungarian gypsy style with brio and received, as was to be expected, rapturous and prolonged applause. Her delivery throughout was astonishing in that she somehow made the sound of this comparatively small instrument fill the entire hall with its warmth and beauty.

After the interval, the ever sprightly, good humoured and audience-friendly Vladimir Ashkenazy returned to the podium to conduct the 9th Symphony of Dvořák (1893) the title of which, ‘From the New World’, was given to it by the composer after its completion but before its first performance.

The ‘New World’ is one of the best-known of all symphonies, giving musical voice to a country’s very being that is in this case, although hard to define, as recognisably ‘American’ as Elgar‘s works are English or Tchaikovsky’s Russian.

Listening to the familiar strains which reflect the composer’s sense of open space and new world optimism (Dvořák had been employed to foster a new American school of music), it is difficult not to think of how that optimism was already being compromised less than a decade before in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884) where Twain contrasts the natural beauty of the Mississippi territory with the swindling, trickery, sharp practice and worse, endemic among its human inhabitants.

Vladimir Ashkenazy coaxed every nuance and significance from Dvořák’s symphonic masterpiece, and in acknowledging the Philharmonia’s delivery of it, singling out in particular the woodwind section where the oboe in the Brahms Adagio, and the Cor Anglais in the Dvořák Largo have important parts to play.

This was an unforgettable evening. As was obvious from his reception by the audience, the much loved Ashkenazy is, as the programme notes reminded us, a figure ‘inspired by his passionate drive to ensure that serious music retains a platform in the mainstream media and is available to as broad an audience as possible.’

Hear hear!


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