NSO & Vladimir Ashkenazy, Staying True to Sibelius

Vladimir Ashkenazy began his two-week run as the NSO's guest conductor last night.
Vladimir Ashkenazy began his two-week run as the NSO's guest conductor last night. (By Sasha Gusov -- The Kennedy Center)
By Charles T. Downey
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 30, 2008

Osmo Vanska, who conducted a memorable program of mostly Sibelius last year, may have the surest hand with the Finnish composer at the moment, but Vladimir Ashkenazy, who last night began a two-week stint as guest conductor with the National Symphony Orchestra, again showed his own admirable touch. The program at the Kennedy Center paired the first and last symphonies, recalling the classic recording of the entire cycle Ashkenazy made with the Philharmonia Orchestra early in his conducting career.

While the First Symphony is indebted to the German symphonic tradition, it is unmistakably in Jean Sibelius's mature voice. The opening clarinet solo includes the so-called S-motif, recently identified by Finnish musicologist Harri Miettunen as the composer's musical signature. This four-note theme moves one step down, back to the same note and then up one note, like the gruppetto, a musical ornament written like an "S" lying on its side.

Ashkenazy, in professorial turtleneck, set a brisk Allegro energico in the first movement, in keeping with what Sibelius later instructed. The quick pace, with the second theme energized by playful woodwinds, highlighted the adventurous, heroic quality of the main theme. The second movement was warm and buoyant, with appealingly romantic stretching of tempo. The Scherzo was again on the fast side, becoming slightly discombobulated in the chatty fugato section, but with a dreamy haze settling in over the trio. The NSO responded to Ashkenazy's driven interpretation with an excited sound, dashing the cool, Nordic stereotype of Sibelius and playing the romantic character of the work to the hilt.

A shorter tone poem, "The Oceanides," provided a bridge to the last symphony. The title refers to the thousands of daughters of the sea god Oceanus and was inspired by the composer's first voyage across the Atlantic, when he came to Connecticut to conduct the premiere. Ashkenazy made the score bubble with undulating triplets and syncopated figures, opting again for a tempo at odds with the Sostenuto assai (rather sustained) marking indicated by Sibelius. Keeping the overall sound contained for much of the work, he allowed surging harp glissandi and wind solos to seem to ride atop the waves. Murky bass notes in low brass, timpani and contrabassoon provided a mysterious foundation, a pelagic universe of otherworldly creatures beneath the turbulence.

The Seventh Symphony first bore the title "Fantasia sinfonica," and it has much in common with Sibelius's tone poems. Themes are transformed over the course of a continuous single movement, almost without the listener noticing, in a pattern that both evokes and negates traditional symphonic forms. In the opening section, Ashkenazy allowed the orchestra to luxuriate in the gentle textures, but the frenzied buildup to the Vivacissimo section became just slightly scattered. The many sections of the score melted into one another with barely perceptible shifts.

In his drafts for the Seventh Symphony, Sibelius marked a floating but stern theme in the first trombone with the name of his wife Aino, a programmatic association he later disavowed. Ashkenazy repeatedly created an anxious building of tension, until the heart-racing turbulence was diffused by that calming Aino theme.

The concert will be repeated tonight and tomorrow.

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