Philharmonia/Mackerras – 8 December

Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Murray Perahia (piano)

Janice Watson (soprano)
Cornelia Kallisch (mezzo-soprano)
Timothy Robinson (tenor)
Alfred Reiter (bass)
Philharmonia Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 December, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s Beethoven symphony cycle ended with the indisposed Wolfgang Sawallisch replaced – as he was twice back in March – by Sir Charles Mackerras, in a concert which neatly paired the first and last works of Beethoven’s acknowledged orchestral output (the ’second’ concerto composed before that known as No.1).

Interpretatively, there’s little to say about performances which convey Beethovenian thinking so directly and so scrupulously – predictable in the most engaging sense. As before, Murray Perahia has taken the changes in conducting personnel with no feeling of his approach to the concertos being undermined. The opening movement was brisk though never rushed, its Mozartian credentials firmly stated – though the cadenza (composed later) could have had a fraction more room to breathe in its harmonic ’dissolve’ to the coda. The ’Adagio’ had the right balance between pathos and sentiment, while the hunting stylizations of the ’Rondo’ finale passed by engagingly, if (rightly) without the uninhibitedness that Beethoven was to bring to the corresponding movement of his ’First’ Concerto.

So much ’authentic’ revisionism and related doubt has been visited on the Ninth Symphony over the past two decades that it often seems surprising how performances can take place at all. Mackerras has long steered a dependable middle-course between informed awareness of the past and the emotional needs of the present. There may be little overtly ’non troppo’ about his opening ’Allegro’, but the poise and articulation of the movement’s inner workings were revealed without compromising its questing stature. Given with all repeats, the ’Scherzo’ was often aggressive in its vivacity (how the anti-hero of Anthony Burgess’s The Clockwork Orange would have thrilled to Andrew Smith’s visceral timpani playing), while the ’Adagio’ unfolded its twin and increasingly interrelated strands of developing variation with a degree of anxiety to break the surface calm.

Changes also affected the soloists in the ’Finale’, though the resulting quartet was well complemented both in terms of vocal colouring and in its articulation of Schiller’s appeal to human togetherness. Convincing? Yes, in the sense that this was a performance that stressed musical virtues as opposed to metaphysical conundra: Beethoven’s appeal sounding forth in all its myriad variants between uncertainty and conviction, with the music’s ultimate goal driven home in convincing terms.

As well as concluding the Beethoven cycle (though the Missa Solemnis follows on 6 March), the concert also marked Mackerras’s appointment as Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia. With his experience across a wide repertoire and ever-astute musicianship, orchestra and audience alike stand to benefit from his continued involvement with the South Bank.

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