Brendel, Mackerras, Scottish CO – 2 February

Symphony No.31 in D, K297 (Paris)
Piano Concerto No.17 in G, K453
Symphony No.4 in C minor, D417 (Tragic)

Alfred Brendel (piano)

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 February, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

It’s not often that a conductor addresses the audience during a symphony! Having just given the Paris Symphony’s Andante as a liquid centre of songfulness (forgive the floweriness!), Sir Charles turned to the audience and made mention of the alternative movement that Mozart composed when advised that Paris audiences wouldn’t understand the original. The courtly option is certainly charming. I do wish though that Mackerras hadn’t bulldozered his way through the Finale. However efficient the playing, and the SCO’s was, so much expression and clarity of inner parts were lost. The first movement worked better in a proudly ceremonial way, trumpets and drums to the fore.

That Mackerras is 100 per cent musician isn’t doubted. Yet his business-like, even bullish approach can be to the detriment of music’s small print. While there are conductors who are far more matter-of-fact with ’historically aware’ niceties, there were moments in the Schubert when dynamic bulges seemed more important than dramatic thrust. Which is not to suggest that Mackerras didn’t keep the music on the go: this was a rough-hewn and vital performance. Having revealed both of Mozart’s slow movements with grace, Mackerras made Schubert’s ’Andante’ the focus. In its eloquence and volatility, Mackerras presented a sad song infinitely spun with restless interludes. Vibrato was as welcome as it was surprising.

Mackerras is Alfred Brendel’s partner for his latest recordings of Mozart’s concertos. The SCO’s playing here was that bit sweeter, Mackerras the gallant and far from subservient accompanist. Brendel seems to prize from Mackerras a little more poise for these collaborations. And collaboration was high on Brendel’s agenda. Quite often he pared his contribution down to that of attendant (albeit a notable one) when there was something more important in the orchestra, not least from the woodwinds, who were characterful confreres. Throughout, Brendel was the master of economy, fully appreciating this concerto’s lightness and elegance, which made the almost operatic contrasts of the slow movement and the thoughtful delineation of the Finale’s variations all the more telling. Brendel added a few droll bars of his own to launch the sparkling coda. This was Brendel at his communing best and the real treat in an enjoyable matinee concert. Curmudgeonly critics aside!

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