Last updated: February 24, 2013 7:54 pm

Philharmonia Orchestra/Ashkenazy, Royal Festival Hall, London

A bracing aperitif of music by John Zorn preceded a nicely judged pairing of Britten and Shostakovich
Vladimir Ashkenazy©Keith Saunders

This is Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s first season as musical director of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s “Music of Today” series and it is proving highly eclectic. To judge from her own music we should expect a journey alive with fantasy and imagination, but oh dear – how deathly her spoken introduction was here. Could we not go back to the interview format, which used to work so well?

Fortunately, the music of John Zorn, Thursday’s featured composer, will have given a good shake to anybody who was drifting into a stupor. Sixty this year, Zorn is wild and unpredictable, a “musical iconoclast” in Chin’s words. His Angelus Novus for wind octet explores extreme contrasts in a potent mix of modernity and ancient Jewish melody. Whether it was motionless chords hanging in the air or a wild rollercoaster of notes, this music is teeming with interest and sounded an absolute beast to play.

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His zany For Your Eyes Only, scored for an ensemble of 20 players, romped along like a trailer for a James Bond film – restlessly intercut, violent, humorous, and quite a lot of fun until the novelty wore off about halfway through. It certainly will have given the Philharmonia musicians under conductor Matthew Coorey a good workout.

The free, early evening “Music of Today” event always precedes one of the Philharmonia’s main concerts. This was the next in the orchestra’s short series marking the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten. Vladimir Ashkenazy, who cannot have conducted much Britten in his time, chose the Suite from Death in Venice made by Steuart Bedford, the opera’s first conductor, and his arrangement works surprisingly well as a half-hour concert piece. How glitteringly beautiful Britten’s percussion sounds when it is not buried in the pit at the opera house.

After that, Britten was paired with Shostakovich again. The Cello Concerto No. 2, played here by Sol Gabetta, and the Symphony No. 15, Shostakovich’s last, are roughly contemporaneous with Death in Venice. The performances really needed to be tauter than they were, but Ashkenazy gave them an expansiveness and humanity that felt entirely at one with the valedictory air of the Britten – especially as Shostakovich’s own glimmering percussion faded into nothingness.


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