Ashkenazy in Moscow
Enterprisingly, in the concerts that Vladimir Ashkenazy gave with the RPO on his return to Russia last year, after 26 years in exile, he included these two outstanding British symphonies. Like the other items performed then, live recordings were made—with an EMI team in charge—and here on the RPO's own label we have the two symphonies in an unexpected but attractive coupling with a studio recording of the Britten Serenade.
If it seems strange that Martyn Hill has made another recording of that masterpiece so soon after his Virgin Classics one with Hickox, the choice of Jeffrey Bryant for the horn part brings ample reason for including it. For many years Bryant has been an outstanding principal in the orchestra, and here at last he gets his due recognition on record in a superb performance, ripe-toned and expressive.
Ashkenazy has not till now been much known as an interpreter of British music, but in his role as Music Director of the RPO he is developing new sympathies, not just with this record, but even more markedly in the future, when he is planning an important concert series featuring British music for the arrival of the Single European Market in 1992. In all three works Ashkenazy underlines the expressive warmth of the writing in a red-blooded way. Though inevitably in live performances which make virtuoso demands, ensemble does not always have quite such pinpoint precision as in the studio recordings listed above—in the fugato of the finale of the Walton for example—these are dazzling performances none the less in which any marginal flaw is amply compensated for in the total commitment of the playing.
That is so not just in the Walton but in the Knussen too. The Tilson Thomas performance with the Philharmonia on Unicorn-Kanchana is well played, but the musicians are plainly concentrating above all on getting the notes right. The RPO are liberated by comparison, bringing out the mystery of the opening far more intensely, and regularly revealing the emotional thrust of Knussen's beautiful and complex writing. More expansive in manner, it is the performance I would recommend first to anyone who as yet does not know this young composer's formidable but deeply rewarding music. This closely-argued one-movement symphony, lasting in this performance 16½ minutes, is the work which most clearly reveals his weight as a composer.
Amazingly with a symphony which has been seriously neglected, this version of the Walton is the fourth to appear in just over a year, and again there will be many for whom this will be the most rewarding choice. Ashkenazy is marginally brisker and more urgent than either Previn (EMI) or Mackerras (EMI Eminence) in the outer movements, bringing out the scherzando element in the finale even more effectively. He then most tellingly draws out the lyrical warmth of the central slow movement at a marginally slower speed. This is the most sensuous performance of all, helped by sound that is amazingly good considering the problems of live recording, very atmospheric with plenty of detail and on the whole a natural balance. Try the muted trumpets and trombones playing tremolo just after fig. 73 in the slow movement (track 2, 4'46''), and the sinister rasp comes over even more effectively than with the others.
The balance of the studio recording of the Britten is much more questionable, when both soloists seem to be set behind the strings. This gives an extra bloom to Hill's voice, but except in such passages as the opening of the Lyke-Wake ''Dirge'', one regularly wants him closer. It is less serious with the horn, when the richness and range of Bryant's colourings are superbly caught, and the big climaxes certainly have weight. As to Ashkenazy's reading, it is often slower than that of Hickox and most other interpreters, markedly so in the Tennyson setting ''The splendour falls on castle walls,'', but that only seems to add to the concentration and warmth. I certainly prefer this relaxed and jaunty account of the brilliant Ben Jonson setting, ''Queen and huntress'', to Hickox's, which by comparison seems rushed, but the couplings are so different there is little direct rivalry between the discs. Anyone fancying an unusual grouping of three masterly British works will be very satisfied.'