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Ashkenazy’s Mostly Moscow Sessions

<i> Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to The Times. </i>

On the same weekend last year that East Berliners were beginning literally to start chipping at the Wall, Vladimir Ashkenazy returned to his native Soviet Union for the first time in a quarter-century, along with London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he is music director.

The occasion, rapturously received by the Moscow public and not at all bad for the Soviets’ improving image in the West, offered first-class music-making--perhaps Ashkenazy’s finest accomplishments to date as a conductor, a calling in which he is a relative novice.

The purported bulk of what was heard in the acoustically sumptuous Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on Nov. 11 and 12, 1989, is preserved on a pair of compact discs, issued in this country by MCA Classics (Vol. I, MCAD-6466; Vol. II, MCAD-10099).

Listening to the broad-ranging repertory offered here disabuses at least one listener of the notion that hiring conductor Ashkenazy is the price one pays for getting pianist Ashkenazy. If the Moscow concerts are typical, one is fortunate to encounter him in either capacity.

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Volume I presents familiar fare: Mussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina” Prelude in the Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement, a sort of Moscow municipal anthem--delicately, evocatively delivered; the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto directed from the keyboard; and the Second “Daphnis et Chloe” Suite by Ravel.

Ashkenazy is in characteristically cool, agile form as a Beethoven pianist while maintaining keenly balanced rapport with his responsive orchestra.

The RPO gives its virtuoso all in the Ravel, disdaining the final measure of heat and noise in the pursuit of textural clarity. A wise, winning decision.

The real excitement, however, is in Volume II, an attractive program of 20th-Century British music, dazzlingly executed.

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Three big works are offered, of which Walton’s Second Symphony (1960) is particularly impressive. Ashkenazy does much to illuminate this undervalued score, which in its few previous recorded outings (live hearings are rare even in the U.K.) has tended to sound like a near-frantic attempt to recall the thrills of the composer’s thunderous First Symphony, written a quarter-century earlier.

Ashkenazy, presumably not steeped in Walton’s music, brings a fresh, questing ear and eye to the later score. Without denying its more bombastic and melodramatic elements, he elicits clarity of line (which does not happen by itself) throughout and patiently exposes the dynamic subtleties and considerable lyric beauties of the slow movement. The orchestral execution is on the highest level.

Oliver Knussen’s Third Symphony (1979) is brawny, snarly, showy, nervously fragmented stuff in which thematic ideas tumble out seemingly at will, pushing each other aside rather than being developed. The RPO and its enthusiastic conductor fully exploit the symphony’s built-in wow factor, to the audible delight of the Moscow audience.

The remaining work is Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings--its fourth recording this year--in an interpretation of extraordinary reflectiveness.

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Martyn Hill’s whitish, well-tuned tenor and immaculate diction (in his second recorded go at the work this year) are employed to excellent effect and the horn solo is executed with stunning aplomb by RPO principal Jeffrey Bryant.

Still, while long on sensitivity Ashkenazy’s interpretation does not consistently maintain momentum, bogging down rather severely in the closing portion of the first song and in the whole of the Dirge.

But this didn’t happen in Moscow. Reading some small, tucked- away print in MCA’s notes verifies a listener’s suspicions that the Britten--in a wholly different acoustic, at a lower volume level and with no audience noise--is a studio job. It was recorded, as it turns out, at Abbey Road three months after the Moscow concerts.


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