Mackerras Magic – 22 January

Háry János – Suite
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70

Barry Douglas (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 22 January, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

With the recent appointment of Sir Charles Mackerras as Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra (especially welcome after his sterling services standing in for an indisposed Wolfgang Sawallisch during the first two legs of the Philharmonia’s Beethoven cycle), concerts with the London Philharmonic are unlikely to be repeated in future seasons given the fierce independent streak common to all London orchestras in keeping hold of their associated conductors. That would be a great shame, as the London Philharmonic responded keenly to Mackerras’s unfussy direction, which shook so many cobwebs away from these repertoire mainstays that there was a danger of the RFH platform becoming a spiders’ graveyard by the end of the evening.

Three mainstays of the repertoire? Yes, everybody knows Kodály’s Háry János – but how often is it actually played live? I’m not sure that I have ever heard it from the concert platform, although I have a favourite recording by the LPO, recorded in September 1983 with Klaus Tennstedt. Perhaps its large orchestral forces, and important part for solo cimbalom (here played by Edward Cervenka) mitigates against more frequent programming, but it was certainly a breath of fresh air here. As if to illustrate its peculiar standpoint in the grey areas of popular concert repertoire, the audience (me included) burst into applause after the penultimate ’Intermezzo’.

For me, too, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto has that same twilight feeling. I often shy away from performances, arguing to myself that the music – those thundering piano octaves underlining the once-heard never-forgotten first theme, which Tchaikovsky simply dumps before the main part of the movement – is too hackneyed to indulge another live rendition. But Mackerras was worth the hearing, I reasoned, especially with Paris-based, Irish pianist Barry Douglas. And just to prove how erroneous long-held views can be, I came away from this performance both engaged and energised. Douglas can manage both the power and the delicacy that Tchaikovsky demands, and Mackerras was leaving no orchestral stone unturned, keeping players on their collective toes to produce a fully rounded romantic masterpiece. This was full-blooded stuff, with individual instruments revelling in their own uniqueness, rather than aiming, Karajan-like, for homogeneity of sound. The horns, particularly, excelled themselves with a coarse, exciting sound which surely Tchaikovsky would have wanted.

These telling touches were equally effective in Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony – the dark-hued, Brahmsian, Seventh.Again this is a supremely popular work (albeit giving some ground to Dvořák’s subsequent two symphonies). We perhaps take it for granted.Not Mackerras, an avowed expert in Czech music, who placed Dvořák in the Bohemian tradition, so one could distinctly hear the soundworld that produced both Mahler and Janáček amidst its luscious melodies and sonorous accompaniment. It was the juxtapositions between sections, the sudden recurring pulses and multi-layered cross rhythms that he can create that impressed in their foresight, whereas we tend to regard Dvořák as something of a conservative. The sinewy oboe that takes the heat out of the strident opening of the Scherzo, and slows the music down for the gentler Trio, which is still underpinned by agitated rumblings in the bass, all seemed clearer from Mackerras – the music jumping from the page.

The London Philharmonic appeared both enthusiastic and grateful for these new insights into a well-known score, and attacked it with a wild, passionate abandon that too well prepared and honed renditions miss. This was live and sometimes dangerous music-making, rustic in its honesty and brashness, but probably more truthful to its composer than many performances. The aching cry of despair of the Finale became an emotion-laden battle cry for the movement’s journey; Dvořák’s score came alive with extra-musical possibilities.

These were performances that allowed one to revel in the music and discover it afresh. Mackerras – whatever the repertoire – often engages me in this way, and this was an important reminder as to how much we should cherish his contributions to the London music scene. Mackerras is, quite simply, a treasure. The London Philharmonic responded appropriately and gloriously.

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