MOT & Mackerras Brahms – 3

On a Clear Day [UK premiere]
a twilight’s song

Julie Moffat (soprano)
Shelagh Sutherland (piano)
Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Matthias Pintscher

Academic Festival Overture, Op.80
Violin Concerto in A, K219
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

James Ehnes (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras


Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 5 April, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Sir Charles Mackerras’s rhythmically flexible approach to Brahms is an anomaly in an age of strict fidelity to the score, but his recorded symphony cycle with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra made a persuasive case; nonetheless, it is interesting to see a defence of tempo rubato printed in the programme for this Brahms cycle, as if warning listeners of a nervous disposition.

There was certainly nothing to startle the horses in the first half, which began with the overture Brahms wrote on the occasion of receiving his honorary doctorate from the University of Breslau. This uncharacteristically exuberant work was performed with the lightest of touches; the Philharmonia, on top form all evening, produced a wonderfully unified rounded sound, and Mackerras bundled the medley of student songs along with the merest hint of tongue-in-cheek drollery.

There followed a delightful performance of Mozart’s A major Violin Concerto, an interpretation that glowed with idiomatic detail; James Ehnes played with a refinement that shaded close to anonymity in the first movement, but his honeyed tones were perfect for the Adagio’s singing lines, and the finale was dispatched with wit and brio.

In contrast, there was plenty of darkness in Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. Mackerras, claiming ‘authentic’ justification, played fast and loose with Brahms’s tempos, though any listener familiar with the interpretations of, say, Toscanini or Furtwängler would not have been unduly shocked. His approach was least convincing in the first movement, catching members of the orchestra out on occasion and appearing a little heavy handed; still, there were wonderful moments, like the perfectly judged ritenuto into the recapitulation of the main theme, which suspended time in a way that seemed fresh and wholly natural.

The rest of the symphony was equally engaging: the plangent second movement gave way to a pithy and precise scherzo, before a towering account of the finale. Here Mackerras gripped from the very first bars, making plain his total control over the music and using rubato to articulate the movement’s structure and emotional trajectory; particularly fine was the space given to the slow central section, with a beautiful, searching flute solo by Kenneth Smith.

Earlier, members of the Philharmonia Orchestra had performed music by Matthias Pintscher to a slightly more select audience, as part of the excellent “Music of Today” series. Pintscher does not yet enjoy the starry profile in this country that he does on the continent, so this was a rare and important opportunity to hear his music. Of the works selected, the first two had the feel and proportions of studies. In Janusgesicht, cello and viola engage in a sensual dialogue of breathy harmonics, seeking union but teasingly denied it. On A Clear Day was inspired by a minimalist artwork by Agnes Martin, and explored a limited harmonic palette with meditative intensity; Shelagh Sutherland brought out the full range of tone colours. More substantial was “a twilight’s song”, a setting of poetry by e e cummings previously heard at a Hoxton New Music Day in 2001. Pintscher described in a pre-performance interview the importance of sonority to his music, and this appealing work offered a diaphanous haze of bowed percussion and murmuring woodwinds, the text – variously sung, spoken and whispered by Julie Moffat – embedded in the ensemble like fragments of glass.

  • The “Music of Today” concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 18 June at 11 p.m.
  • Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Philharmonia Orchestra information:
    Freephone 0800 652 6717

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