Mackerras Uchida Mozart

Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550
Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K491
Requiem in D minor, K626

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Susan Gritton (soprano)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (contralto)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Peter Rose (bass)

Philharmonia Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 12 June, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Sir Charles Mackerras belied his near-octogenarian status by leading performances of these late minor-key Mozart works which were characterised by tension and urgency. There was no lingering, instead a desire to move ever forward – the results were bracing and refreshing.

Symphony No.40’s Molto allegro opening was certainly that, andperhaps one occasionally sensed undue haste, but the conductor’s grip on the music and the players’ response were undeniably compelling. Having opted for the Revised Version, which includes clarinets, Mackerras ensured that the characteristic timbre of those instruments registered clearly. Indeed the refinement and invention of Mozart’s scoring was made apparent throughout. The Andante was flowingly paced, with some elegant wind phrasing. Despite its major key there was a sense of restlessness and disquiet just below the surface. Returning to a dogged G minor for the Minuet, one would have to say that Mackerras’s drive through it was far swifter than the designated Allegretto would normally allow, but he ensured that dissonance registered alarmingly. The finale also found Mozart’s chromatics sounding quite startling, and the sense of a tortuous journey was conveyed through this invigorating performance.

Both Mitsuko Uchida and Mackerras are ‘old hands’ at Mozartpiano concertos, but there was never an sense of routine in this dark performance of K491, the second of only two minor-key piano concertos by Mozart. The spirit of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto – in the same key – seemed to be anticipated by the portent of the opening, Mozart’s fragmented thematic material delivered with intensity by both orchestra and soloist. One noticed how much semiquaver piano-writing there is in this work, but how subtly and with what variety Mozart deploys this, and how apt was Uchida’s response in all instances, deftly matched by responsive orchestral playing. The second movement did indeed seem like an oasis amidst despair, and the woodwind episodes were exceptionally well played. Uchida’s finely poised weighting of chords was exemplary, and her ornamentation here andelsewhere was stylistically quite appropriate. Troubled waters were returned to for the finale, the tempo being exceptionally well-judged, and the passing of ideas between orchestra and piano had a sense of spontaneity.

I did not recognise the cadenzas in the outer movements, but they were suitable for their context and delivered in a fittingly improvisational manner.

Mackerras used the tone of the Philharmonia Orchestra to the music’s advantage, an apparent concession to ‘period’ style being hard timpani sticks and ‘natural’ trumpets. I would have liked to more of the latter.

This was the first occasion I have had the opportunity to hear Mozart’s Requiem in the completion by Robert D. Levin. In an extensive programme note, Levin justified his efforts, highlighting perceived deficiencies in the ‘traditional’ Süssmayr edition.

Comments about the scoring were interesting, Levin claiming that a ‘thinner’ sound is more appropriate, given Mozart’s examples from Salzburg. But as the Requiem would, surely, have been intended for Vienna, I would have thought that different criteria would apply.

A sketch for an ‘Amen’ fugue at the end of the “Lacrimosa” has been worked out but, to these ears, it sounded decidedly Handelian rather than the Mozart of 1791, and following the soloists’ music in the “Benedictus”, there was an orchestral section which would have been more at home in one of Berlioz’s more ghostly passages. However, some of the scoring andthematic adjustment in this movement was indeed preferable to Süssmayr’s oddly insistent use of trombones.

In any event, Mackerras and his forces gave a convincing rendition. Indeed, at times, Mozart’s Requiem acquired an almost theatrical – rather than liturgical – air. The Philharmonia Chorus was on fine form, with clear contrapuntal entries, full tone from the whole choir, and hushed entries when required. The soloists were a good, well-balanced team, though I found Peter Rose rather too insistently stentorian at times.

Once again, the Philharmonia Orchestra played both robustly and with refinement – the whole presided over magisterially by a dynamic Sir Charles Mackerras.

One curiosity – in a section of the programme promoting the Philharmonia’s new season at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, we were informed that “a more intimate acoustic promises to offer a rare opportunity to experience the real musical detail of the Orchestra’s performances.” Well, there was unquestionably plenty of “real musical detail” to be savoured in this all-Mozart concert given in the Royal Festival Hall.

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