Tone Poem Tuesday

I’ll have more to say about this later in the week, but for now I learned yesterday that one of my musical heroes, pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, has retired from public performance. Ashkenazy has been a giant of the music world for more than sixty years, and his performances–both at the keyboard and on the podium–always have a good deal of excitement behind them. In my opinion, Ashkenazy’s cycle of the three symphonies of Sergei Rachmaninov have never been equaled. (One day I’ll write the long paean to the Rachmaninov Second that’s been in my head for years.)

While Ashkenazy might well be most closely associated with Russian and Slavic music, he was no one-trick pony. Here he is conducting Debussy, about as spiritually far from the heavy Russian Romanticism of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov you can get and yet still remain in roughly the same time period. Debussy’s La Mer is a three-part work, called “symphonic sketches” by the composer, who wanted to avoid the associations of the symphony and the symphonic poem. Debussy often worked to throw off formal constraints in a way that is not unlike his earlier countryman, Hector Berlioz. La Mer is deeply evocative and masterful in its use of orchestral textures to convey Debussy’s impressions of the sea.

Here is La Mer by Claude Debussy, performed by the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the great Vladimir Ashkenazy.

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