COSTA MESA — Having delivered an unusual, primarily post-Romantic program at Pasadena's Ambassador Auditorium Thursday, the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra on Sunday brought to the Orange County Performing Arts Center another all-orchestral, Romantic agenda.
At the Ambassador, conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy offered the indulgent banality of Scriabin's Third Symphony. At Segerstrom Hall, he gave us the indulgent glory of Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra." As on Thursday, the orchestra played boldly, loudly and sometimes imperfectly. Precision of attacks does not appear to be one of Ashkenazy's top priorities.
But intensity, excitement and drama are high on the conductor's list, and his high-voltage reading of Strauss' lofty Nietzschean tone poem certainly bore that out. Ashkenazy has in this orchestra a sturdy, energized brass section, percussionists who rarely pull punches and, most remarkably, a string choir that penetrates with Brobdingnagian strength. As a result, key moments in the work exploded with vigor; the most climactic of these proved earth-shattering.
This was not simply an aggressive, cataclysmic performance, however. Ashkenazy, finishing up his first year as principal conductor of the Berlin ensemble, brought out telling details with striking clarity. The various woodwind soloists played with great sensitivity, and concertmaster Hans Maile delivered his extended solos with confidence and style.
Though "Also Sprach Zarathustra" was composed only 20 years after Brahms' First Symphony, few musicians would claim that the two works should receive the same treatment. Yet Ashkenazy's Brahms proved nearly as extroverted--and often nearly as loud--as his Strauss. To be sure, he brought spellbinding excitement and unforgettable power to the familiar score. Yet much of the dramatic impact was lost by virtue of the sheer muscularity of the playing.
Again, the music-making, while by no means flawless, was first-class. All of the players seemed to play as if their lives (not their livelihood) depended on it. But they played with such constant force that the work did not take on any real shape. Thus, to give the finale's coda the importance it needed, Ashkenazy had to coax his players to play with such headlong abandon that the listener felt as if he were sitting a few feet under a rapidly moving elevated train.