Mozart & Mahler

Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat, K482
Symphony No.4

Penelope Thwaites (piano)

Sally Matthews (soprano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Alexander Briger

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 15 December, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Seldom does even the most indifferent concert not have at least a few redeeming features, but this one came dangerously close. In this case there were two saving graces: the playing of Nicholas Busch, the London Philharmonic’s principal horn for over 30 years (and prior to that with the Philharmonia Orchestra) who leaves this week, and the singing of Sally Matthews.

This Mozart concerto is arguably his grandest and most profound. Briger launched its opening tutti with a whiplash vehemence wholly at odds with the music’s character and had one wincing at its lack of style. Against this lacklustre backdrop, Penelope Thwaites, well-known for her championing of Percy Grainger, seemed ill at ease, hardly surprising since Briger paid her scant attention throughout. In fact there was very little sense of give and take about this performance, everything proceeding at an aggressive forte devoid of any sense of light and shade. Thwaites played her own cadenzas, unexceptional if overlong in the first movement, and weirdly out of character in the finale. In the sublime slow movement there was some fine playing from both flute and bassoon, much less so from the rough and ready clarinets, and even those moments of built-in magic such as the modulation to the major key at the movement’s close – a shaft of light in the all-encompassing gloom – succeeded in sounding merely prosaic. The finale was jostled along unmercifully.

On the surface the Mahler was less obviously unsatisfactory. Briger chose a reasonably sensible speed for the first movement – not too fast – but soon lost his way amongst Mahler’s myriad markings, making the common mistake of taking what are essentially indications of musical character such as ‘broadly sung’ as an invitation to halve the speed. More fundamentally, dynamics were without exception too loud, coarsening the music’s character and holding little in reserve for the movement’s true climax, which actually grated on the ear. To his credit Nicholas Busch contributed a sensitive horn solo at the movement’s close. Rather more satisfactory was the second movement ‘Death’s Fiddle’ ländler, possibly because it poses fewer interpretative challenges.

The slow movement, marked ‘peacefully’, flowed rather too swiftly, its successive increases of speed sounding like uncomfortable gear changes rather than a natural release of carefully built-up tensions; and dynamic levels were again consistently several notches too loud and there was little in the way of true legato. Matters improved with the arrival of Sally Matthews for the finale, a child’s vision of heaven, not that Briger’s insensitively over-the-top accompaniment did Matthews any favours, allowing her precious little time to articulate. However, by the time that glorious final paragraph describing the music heard in heaven was reached, Matthews had us eating out of her hand, her sustained legato showing just what had been missing in so much of the rest of the performance: poise and finesse.

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