Quite by coincidence, last Saturday I unearthed one of my earliest reviews (October 1970) for the Birmingham Post, in which I remarked that so few foreign musicians seemed to have the key to unlocking the special secrets of English music.
Saturday evening’s concert from the Philharmonia proved how much things have changed, with a Canadian violinist and a Russian conductor combining in a most responsive account of the basically elusive Elgar Violin Concerto.
Beneath the rhetoric, beneath the intricate solo writing, beneath the imposing proportions there beats a heart pierced with insecurity and regret, an inferiority complex which can only be hidden by swagger. And together James Ehnes and Vladimir Ashkenazy found it all.
Ehnes, a gentle giant, brought a rich, elegiac tone and unobtrusive virtuosity to his performance. Ashkenazy, diminutive and jerkily hyperactive (his conducting technique, quite the reverse of the austere Pierre Boulez, will never be a role-model), drew from what appears to be a rejuvenated Philharmonia both a remarkable depth of sonority and well-pointed athleticism. Rapport between soloist and orchestra in the finale’s extended, retrospective cadenza was extraordinarily gripping.
Ashkenazy’s interpretation of Holst’s Planets Suite was similarly revelatory, moving from a whiplash Mars to a Venus of the utmost tenderness, despite some string solos being overplayed.
His tempo-control in Jupiter was well-achieved, the liveliness of the outer sections bringing the turgidness of the maundering central melody into bathetic contrast. Here, as wherever else appropriate, the zippy ending took the breath away.
The otherworldly mysticism of Neptune was subtly shaded in performance, and the ladies of the City of Birmingham Choir contributed ethereally offstage, though their repeated vocalisations ended before they should have disappeared into nothingness.