Mackerras Brahms – 1

Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83

Till Fellner (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 March, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

It was a good idea to start with the C minor Symphony. It’s not an obvious ‘first-half’ work, but it was the perfect way to give immediate focus to the four-concert Brahms symphony cycle that Sir Charles Mackerras and the Philharmonia Orchestra are giving over the next few weeks. After all, Brahms laboured long and doubtfully over his debut symphony, so hearing this dark-to-light, eventually triumphant work at the very outset mirrored Brahms’s own sense of fulfilment.

In his two-page essay in the programme, “Aspects of Brahms Interpretation”, Mackerras wrote about flexibility of tempo in Brahms’s music, his starting point being the reported interpretations by Hans von Bülow and Fritz Steinbach, and comments such as pianist Fanny Davies’s that “Brahms … was free, very elastic and expansive.” Mackerras was ahead before he even conducted; the layout of the strings – antiphonal violins, cellos left-centre, and eight double basses ranged across the back of the platform – would have been recognised by Brahms. But why did Mackerras then revert to the ‘modern’ arrangement for the concerto and deny us a rare opportunity for the slow movement’s cello solo to be played from next to the pianist?

The First Symphony was given a compelling and engrossing account that was indeed flexible, sometimes convincing sometimes not, although numerous emphases did also halt the flow and draw attention to the ‘device’ rather than to the music’s longer span. But it did make one think about how Brahms himself might have wanted his music to go, and whether the printed score should be taken as gospel. After all, when the motto returns jubilantly at the close, there is no change of tempo marked; Mackerras’s broadening here boarded on the crude, yet it was strangely convincing, certainly as part of his overall, malleable approach. This was a voluble performance, one in which the strings played with vibrato but which (sometimes) required ‘authentic’-like timbres from the woodwinds and horns and went a stage further by including narrow-bore trumpets to add a stinging but not overloud dimension. Normally the exposition repeat in the first movement seems superfluous; here, Mackerras pulled it off with dramatic intent. In the slow movement, which, bar-to-bar, flowed and retarded, some of the invitations for more rubato than the norm seemed to catch various soloists unawares. The finale, launched attacca after a freewheeling intermezzo, contained a most beautifully played ‘big’ tune, yet some of Mackerras’s underlining seemed interventionist for its own sake, and the coda, as mentioned, was hardly the last word in integration. Love it or not, this music-making was never dull and always interesting.

Which is more than can be said for the first two movements of the concerto. Till Fellner seems most concerned, irrespective of what he’s playing, with clarity. Admirable in itself, but the opening cadenza of Brahms’s first movement was sluggish and if an Arrau-like interpretation is to be attempted (certainly in terms of spacious tempos), then infinitely more soul and depth of experience is a mandatory part of the soloist’s armoury. The opening horn solo was mellifluously rendered by Laurence Davies and Sir Charles tried to inject some life, but the large-scale first movement and succeeding scherzo were hampered by Fellner’s always musical if overly clinical and objective approach.

Leaving aside where cellist David Watkin was sitting, his rapturous solo perhaps persuaded Fellner to a more unbuttoned approach; his playing was now more communicative. In the finale, taken unusually spaciously but totally convincingly, Mackerras unfolding the Hungarian aspects with glee, Fellner gave a wholly beguiling account festooned with asides and fancies that were a real pleasure.

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