Monday, 15 March 2010

ASHKENAZY X 3 in Hong Kong / Review

Dimitri Ashkenazy, Clarinet
Vovka Ashkenazy, Piano
Vladimir Ashkenazy, Piano
Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Friday (12 March 2010)

Strange as it may seem, the musical Ashkenazy family – Vladimir and his sons the pianist Vovka and clarinettist Dimitri – have never performed together in concert until this week when the trio did a short tour of Southeast Asia. The final leg was held in Hong Kong, organised by the ever-resourceful Chopin Society of Hong Kong.

The programme was a varied and enjoyable one, commencing with a first half of works for clarinet and piano. A familial rapport was evident on the outset with Dimitri and father exchanging eye contact and reassuring smiles throughout. With a shrug of the shoulders, they began with Schumann’s Three Romances Op.94. Dimitri or Dimka played with a mellow, almost creamy sound, one rich in lustre supported by excellent breath control. These varied character pieces were ideal starters, alternating between meditative lines, a seamless singing tone (as in the well-known second Romanze) and the blissful repose of the final retiring number.

Much more animated were the five Dance Préludes by Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski. The first, third and fifth dances were filled with the same earthy rhythms and catchy melodies commonly heard in Bartok’s nationalist dance suites, certainly a shared heritage of the Eastern European cultures. Does anyone else also think that the central section of the second dance shares the same theme as the rhythmic middle part of Live And Let Die by Paul McCartney and Wings?

More humour arrived in Francis Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata, written for jazzman Benny Goodman. Its bittersweet melodies, breakneck passages and chameleonic shifts in dynamics found sympathetic interpreters in the Ashkenazys. The elegiac slow movement was the heart and soul of the work, while the perpetuum mobile finale revelled in an irrepressible joie de vivre. Poulenc was a marvellous pianist himself and Ashkenazy senior found his hands full but scarcely missed a note.

In the second half was all piano, with Vovka – the eldest of five siblings – in tandem with Vova (Vladimir Senior) on two pianos. Schubert’s Divertissement a la Hongroise is not his greatest music, too long by half (about 25 minutes in total), but fun to listen to, and probably also fun to play. The Hungarian element is in its quaint dance episodes, rhythmic and filled with decorative touches and drones. The short central movement reminded one of Schubert’s better-known Marches Militaires while the finale began with the rhythm to be found in the familiar Moment Musicaux No.3 and Impromptu in F minor (Op.142 No.4). It seemed to go on forever, content with its innocuous Biedermeyer charm, but the Ashkenazys kept it alive and ultimately worth listening.

It was almost a relief when Ravel’s rapturous La Valse arrived. The duo lost no time in establishing fin de siecle Viennese decadence through its swirls and waves of lush sound. There was intricate interplay between both pianists, washed with crashing octaves and chords, and sweeping glissandi. It was a very secure performance, one in which there was hardly a threat of rushing headlong into calamity. Sometimes one almost misses that inherent danger of collapse, which adds to the work’s appeal. Nevertheless, it was always thrilling to witness it “live” than via speakers at home.

There was a surprise encore, one involving all three Ashkenazys. As there is virtually no music for the combo of clarinet and two pianos, the Ashkenazys had one commissioned for the tour. Grandma Had a Little Goat by Nikolai Morozov was its title, described by Vova as having dramatic, tragic (the goat ended up a lupine lunch) and comedic elements, hence typical of lots of Russian music. Eliciting surprisingly good balance between all three instruments, this merry short piece (another Peter and the Wolf in the making?) also had a Jewish flavour to it. Its playful melody could have been from the pen of Shostakovich in an unusually good mood, bringing a historic concert to a happy close.
Vovka & Vova Ashkenazy
meet fans after the concert

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