Its a shrewd move on the Philharmonias part to sign-up Sir Charles Mackerras as its Principal Guest Conductor sparks fly when they get together. Maybe too much so in the Brahms, which in the outer movements hustled and bustled to untimely effect; the horns were often too loud, albeit much else was sensitively balanced. The middle movements were altogether more arresting, Mackerras making distinct what can be two slow movements. Its rare that this particular Brahms symphony ends a concert; it concludes quietly thus the too early applause into what should be reflective silence was regrettable.
These concerts made a thoughtfully planned pair Elgar had particular admiration for Brahmss Third, the chosen concertos are possibly the most popular within their respective genres, and Mackerras is sine qua non in Czech music.
In both concertos the fresh response from the Philharmonia was a pleasure in itself nothing routine here as Mackerras scooped out and placed detail with a rigour and sensibility that was bespoke rather than off the peg. No doubting Sarah Changs passion and communication either, although her playing was as much accomplishment as interpretation.
Nikolai Lugansky breathed new life into Tchaikovskys imposing concerto it was certainly grand, the famous opening tune given with a majesty that was also part of a groundplan that integrated episodes into a cohesive whole. There was no lack of bravura on Luganskys part, equally there was nothing that was ostentatious, technique a means to an musical end; high-water marks and intimate expression seemed indivisible as the long (here, 23 minutes) first movement ran its inevitable course. Luganskys lightness of touch and dexterity in the second movements scherzando section was pure delight (capped by a magical diminuendo returning us to the slower music), so too his unforced if determined traversal of the Finale. Maybe a recording is planned?
Of Mackerrass own suite from Janáceks opera, little need be said; I gather he used Janáceks original manuscript for his continuous extracts. Janáceks individuality (quirkiness) was seized upon, and whether in clarity of detail, phrasal fondness or rhythmic liberation, everything made sense. Dvořáks tone-poem treatment of Othello isnt among his best works (I write this believing Dvořák to be one of the great composers), the musical ideas shared with In Natures Realm and Carnival (Othellos overture companions) being the best. Yet some raptly beautiful string playing in the opening measures and Mackerrass dramatic thrust certainly made Othellos inclusion worthwhile.
While some less than idiosyncratic impulses lost Brahms his classical sense of structure, Mackerrass sands of time flexibility was ideal for Elgar as Anthony Payne notes, Elgars German counterpart is Schumann, not Brahms. The opening motto was mostly semplice with a hint of nobilmente, the turn into the Allegro exquisitely judged, the ebb and flow of emotion measured to a nicety, so too instrumental balance. The Scherzo had a militaristic edge, more invasive threat than imperial pomp the real Elgar. The thematically related (and co-joined) Adagio was of molten tenderness, the pianissimo recall held the breath. The Finale launched under a welter of coughs, Mackerras and the Philharmonia were as one charting from shadows to resolution and opening up eloquent vistas along the way. A magnificent performance.
One curiosity was Mackerrass disposition of the strings both first halves had them arranged violins to cellos, left to right (the now standard way). For both symphonies, cellos and second violins swapped places; thus violins were antiphonal, as one would expect with Sir Charles, and the music benefited accordingly from using yesteryears standard placement. Double basses formed a row back-centre. Perhaps the banner should be: expect the unexpected with Sir Charles Mackerras.
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