Charles Mackerras conducts Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony & Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture [Philharmonia Orchestra on Signum Classics]

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Mendelssohn
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Overture, Op.21
Tchaikovsky
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Recorded 8 February 2009 in Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: June 2011
CD No: SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD253
Duration: 57 minutes

Sir Charles Mackerras and the Philharmonia Orchestra played this programme twice in the Royal Festival Hall (Yefim Bronfman balancing the programme with K491) – firstly on the 5th and then as a Sunday matinee; it’s from the latter occasion that these recordings derive. I had reviewed enthusiastically the earlier concert and suggested that anyone not already going to the second date should change plans and do so. As captured here (and leaving aside any patching), it was (again) quite a concert, Mackerras and the Philharmonia capturing the brooding and tempestuousness of Tchaikovsky’s first movement without affectation or histrionics, the wily old conductor (Mackerras was then 83) playing the long game.

As recorded, although the sound is generally pretty faithful to the Royal Festival Hall acoustic, climaxes sear and can be brass-dominant – to the detriment of the strings (a little recessed anyway by the microphones, but at least sporting antiphonal violins, a seating-plan so important in this music), indeed the rest of the orchestra at times – yet it convinces in context and because one doesn’t sense any gratuitousness; rather it’s an unleashing of fateful emotion. The succeeding ‘Waltz’ is curvaceously upbeat (Tchaikovsky a master of the ballet of course, as was Mackerras). Following is a ‘March’ that for sheer exuberance would be hard to beat; it’s also rather moving to hear an orchestra playing flat-out for a conductor its members clearly relished playing for (something touched upon in the booklet by David Whelton, MD of the Philharmonia, and Alistair Mackie, its Chairman and Principal Trumpet); yet some broadening towards the end of the movement would have been welcome rather than it continuing to ‘fly’ (that required emphatic sense of indestructible triumph is something that Jean Martinon brings off so memorably in his great Vienna Philharmonic recording for Decca, and Ferenc Fricsay followed a similar plan on his vinyls of the piece). Nevertheless Mackerras and the Philharmonia are compellingly electrifying. The slow finale avoids undue sentimentality and is all the more poignant for being noble – no self-pity here – and with an effective doom-laden stroke on the gong to start the music’s descent to its final ebbing away.

Applause is retained, which might be thought a misjudgement, but at least some numbed silence is apparent before clapping, but which proves horribly intrusive at the close of the Mendelssohn (music finishes, an insensitive loon puts their hands together immediately, no thought). This is a nifty and deft performance of Mendelssohn’s miraculous Shakespeare-inspired Overture (placed last on the disc when it should be first), and not without pathos, although it isn’t the most texturally lucid account during fortissimos; good though to have Mendelssohn’s requested ophicleide (a now-obsolete instrument belonging to the bugle family) as part of the colours rather than the more-usual tuba substitute.

If this release proves to be Charles Mackerras’s swansong recording then he bowed out robustly and in a style idiomatic to the chosen works (although he would go on to conduct concerts and operas more or less until his death, on 14 July 2010). With the Tchaikovsky Mackerras adds a symphony new to his discography and does so with a distinguished performance of heart and head, of logic and emotion – and very impressive and compelling it is too.

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