Philharmonia Mackerras

Carnival Overture, Op.92
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104
Glagolitic Mass (original version edited by Paul Wingfield)

Natalie Clein (cello)

Christine Brewer (soprano)
Louise Winter (mezzo-soprano)
John Mac Master (tenor)
Neal Davies (baritone)
Thomas Trotter (organ)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Symphony Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 June, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Part Two of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Dvořák / Janáček series concluded tonight with what was very much a concert of two halves. The indisposition of Han-Na Chang saw Natalie Clein step in for a performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto rarely less than adequate but rarely more than competent. Mackerras having set the pace with an unportentous opening tutti, her initial entry was muzzy and unfocussed – not helped by rubato that verged on the self-conscious. The lyrical second theme, simply phrased, was touchingly direct, but there was little momentum generated in the build up to its breathtaking return, and Clein seemed to rely on her conductor – no mean luxury in this music! – for securing formal coherence in the first movement.

The Adagio was the relative highlight here. Clein entered into its spirit of nostalgic self-communing, making the most of the opportunities for chamber-like discourse but not underplaying the drama of the mid-point exchanges with the orchestra. The finale started well, but Clein over-indulged those episodes between the appearances of the forthright main theme, while the lingering coda (has any other composer had an afterthought which so ‘makes’ the overall work what it is?) was reflective rather than achingly poignant. There can be no doubting Clein’s ability as a cellist, but her lack of personal input into the concerto at the heart of the cello repertoire can only raise questions as to the depth of her interpretative insight elsewhere.

No such reservations applied to the uninhibited account of Dvořák’s overture which got the concert off to an effervescent start – nor, happily, that of the Glagolitic Mass. Mackerras caused something of a sensation in this hall eleven years ago, in a reading which took up Paul Wingfield’s restoration of aspects abandoned or skimped upon at the 1927 premiere. That Wingfield has since published a comparative study of the ‘original’ and ‘standard’ versions should have encouraged more conductors to have done to go back to the composer’s first thoughts. And these, even by the standard of late Janáček, are unprecedented in their disregard for expressive convention: in particular, the orchestral interjections into the organ solo at the heart of Vĕruju (Credo), with their Ivesian percussion and complex chords for seven timpani, and the offstage writing for three clarinets earlier in that movement – a reminder that this is an avowedly Slavonic rendering of the liturgy beyond the language of its setting.

Under Mackerras’s authoritative guidance, the orchestra took such challenges confidently in its stride – as did the chorus such passages as the rhythmic fluidity originally envisaged in Gospodi (Kyrie) and the cruelly high-lying writing in Svet (Sanctus), justifying their restoration beyond doubt. The solo quartet was a strong one – particularly Christine Brewer’s soaring contribution to Slava (Gloria), and John Mac Master’s fearlessness in the subsequent two sections. Neal Davies provided keen support, while Louise Winter’s brief showing was unfailingly musical. No stranger to the sporadic but crucial organ part, Thomas Trotter dispatched the toccata-like Epilogue with thoughtful virtuosity.

Unlike a decade ago, and in the light of evidence uncovered only this year, Mackerras chose tonight to open the work with the designated Introduction – given with tensile lightness of phrasing – and reserve the Intrada for the very ending: ensuring a joyous conclusion to a work whose idea of faith lies not in its observance of religious niceties but in its manifest embodiment of the life-force.

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