Ashkenazy leads the SSO through a rousing Rachmaninov evening

If Rachmaninov's name on the programme helps sell tickets, add Vladimir Ashkenazy to that and a full house becomes a certainty. In the celebrated Russian-born pianist- conductor's third concert leading the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, even the gallery behind the orchestra was overflowing.

The concert opened with Vocalise Op. 34 No. 14, Rachmaninov's only wordless song, in his own orchestration. An early woodwind miscue almost spoiled things, but it was the seamless strings that saved it. Melismata from the violins added a glossy sheen, which lightened the bittersweet mood of the short six-minute piece.

Usually performed as an encore, it was the perfect prelude to the Third Piano Concerto which featured prize-winning Russian pianist Alexei Volodin as soloist. Again, another woodwind miscue sullied the exposition, a chant-like melody reminiscent of Russian orthodoxy, but thankfully that was to be the last mishap. The rock- steady Volodin, directed by the musician who has recorded the concerto at least five times, was not to be perturbed.

If he seemed cool in the first movement, it was a wise gambit which allowed his solo part to be better integrated within the orchestra's textures. He let off the brakes in the development section and simply took off, culminating in a cadenza of pure elemental energy. In the unusual accompanied section of that cadenza, he backed down and became the perfect partner to Jin Ta's flute, Rachel Walker's oboe, Ma Yue's clarinet and Jamie Hersch's French horn.

The orchestral introduction of the slow movement was perfectly weighted, and then the mood turned red hot. This was tempered by a whimsical waltz section where Volodin's scintillating fingerwork floated over the orchestra's busyness. The finale was a bare- knuckled ride, filled with edge-of- the-seat moments, yet there was time to breathe in the central variations which revealed a different facet to his virtuosity. A standing ovation yielded two Slavic encores, a Chopin mazurka and Prokofiev's brilliant Scherzo (Op. 12 No. 10).



    Singapore Symphony Orchestra

    Esplanade Concert Hall/Thursday

The second half belonged to the Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninov's last work, and sometimes regarded as his fifth symphony (after Nos. 1 to 3 and The Bells). Ashkenazy's vision was one of terminal nostalgia, reflecting the composer's yearning for his homeland and roots which would never be fulfilled. The Non Allegro direction on the score was not taken literally, instead with a forceful urgency that dissipated with Tang Xiao Ping's soulful saxophone solo. That and the restatement of a theme from his First Symphony (then thought to be forever lost) took on a greater significance.

The second movement waltzed with ghostly intent like some ballroom scene from War And Peace, and the finale's raucous juxtaposition of the Dies Irae chant with a hymn from his choral Vespers became a paean of sorts. As with many Rachmaninov scores, ambivalence and ambiguity are recurrent traits. So was this a celebratory end or a defiant one?

Judging from the joyous rather than dogged approach from all forces, and Ashkenazy holding high his score to greet the audience's hearty reception, his view clearly pointed to the former.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2015, with the headline 'Ashkenazy leads the SSO through a rousing Rachmaninov evening'. Print Edition | Subscribe