Mackerras Brahms – 4

Brahms
Tragic Overture, Op.81
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73
Dvořák
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104

Truls Mørk (cello)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 10 April, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

A magnificent full-blooded concert and a fitting conclusion to Sir Charles Mackerras’s Brahms cycle. In his well-argued article on the interpretation of Brahms’s music, written for the programme, Mackerras refers to Brahms’s reported aversion to the metronomic performances of his music and his preference for what his friend the English pianist Fanny Davies described as “expansive elasticity”. Be that as it may, what was actually most notable about the Tragic Overture and the Second Symphony was not so much any obvious modifications to tempos (which without exception were flowing and non-controversial) as the peculiarly satisfying inner balances and sheer warmth of the string sound.

In part this may have had to do with the orchestral layout: first and second violins divided left and right, double basses in a line across the rear of the platform, and the cellos positioned where the second violins normally sit. However, these renditions reflected Mackerras’s lifetime’s experience with this music, which manifested itself in the care shown for many frequently glossed-over details. Symptomatic of this was the cellos’ lead-in to the opening string cantilena of the symphony, a simple octave leap that is normally obscured by the trombones but which here made perfect sense. It’s not often, after some 40 live performances of a core work, that a previously unnoticed detail is heard. There was, surprisingly, no repeat of the first movement’s exposition, and the horn solo at the movement’s close wasn’t particularly poetic.

Otherwise there much to admire in the subtly understated exchanges between upper and lower strings, and in the middle movements Mackerras adopted comparatively relaxed speeds and then cannily used them to define and clarify the music’s essential character – for example, the feather-light Presto sections of the third movement dovetailed perfectly with what had gone before. The finale opened with a real theatrical sotto voce – Mackerras is nothing if not a man of the theatre, something equally evident in his dramatic performance of the Tragic Overture – only in the unmarked sprint for the finishing line did one feel inclined to quibble.

In Truls Mørk, Dvořák’s Concerto – the centrepiece of the concert – found a near-ideal interpreter, one at the height of his powers complemented by a conductor who is a master of this repertoire. Since the two of them saw eye-to-eye on matters of interpretation, this was a hugely satisfying performance. The Dvořák Concerto can be a minefield when it comes to balance: Mørk is a big player in the best sense of the word, technically secure, his tone carrying effortlessly. However, he is also a natural chamber musician – his duet with Leader James Clark was an object lesson. Mackerras and Mørk eschewed milking the music and got on with it without fuss, yet distilled the full melancholy of its more introspective passages. Where Mackerras is really subtle in this music is in knowing exactly where and how much to relax without losing momentum. The highest compliment one can pay is to suggest, that from first note to last, this music could have been realised in no other way.

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