Philharmonia/Mackerras Alfred Brendel

Tannhäuser – Overture and Venusberg Music
Piano Concerto No.27 in B flat, K595
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)

Alfred Brendel (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 20 June, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Billed as Sir Charles Mackerras’s 80th-Birthday Gala concert (he reached this age late last year), this substantial programme was an event fully worthy of the occasion. The least egocentric of men, Mackerras chose to share the limelight with Alfred Brendel, his long-term collaborator with whom he has recorded a remarkable series of Mozart concertos.

The overture to “Tannhäuser” with the Venusberg Music that Wagner added for a production in Paris may be less fashionable nowadays than it once was. But, with the Philharmonia Orchestra on tremendous form, it served as a salutary reminder of Mackerras’s strengths in the opera house, which extend far beyond the Czech composers for whom he is best known. There was real subtlety at the very opening in the careful balancing of the wind choir, an appropriately orgiastic climax – Sir Charles still knows how to ‘party’ – and an almost post-coital voluptuous quality to the closing music. Even in the unforgiving confines of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the orchestral balances were generally excellent (only the eight double basses at the rear of the stage failed to register fully) and there was a welcome care for the actual quality of sound.

During the Mozart concerto, one could not help reflecting that between them Mackerras and Brendel now have more than 150 years of musical experience. Since the peculiar potency of K595 is that it encapsulates the wisdom and poignancy that comes with full maturity, this combination of age and knowledge was particularly appropriate to the work. It would be idle to pretend that Brendel is not now fallible – there were occasional hiatuses and his concentration cannot have been helped by a persistent high-pitched whine, probably from a hearing aid – but this was a memorable traversal nonetheless.

On occasion Brendel almost seemed to be re-composing the work in front of our eyes, such was the freedom of his ornamentation, especially in the slow movement where the sparse lines of the original were draped with decoration. Speeds in the outer movements certainly did not linger, however, with Mackerras providing the most lithe of accompaniments and there was real finesse from the Philharmonia’s woodwinds, notably the bassoon of Robin O’Neill.

The Schubert – the orchestra now re-seated with antiphonal violins and the woodwinds in fours – was characterised by an unflagging propulsive rhythmic energy wholly at one with the music’s spirit. Even without the first movement repeat, in a performance of this grandeur – big without heaviness – there was never a moment’s doubt that this was the “Great” C major. The slow movement, taken swiftly and forcefully, was revelatory and a far cry from those rose-tinted performances of yesteryear, its climax reaching a level of anguish and intensity seldom explored in other readings. For a moment we really seemed to peer into the abyss. After the most light-footed of scherzos, Mackerras paused briefly to allow the orchestra to collect itself before unleashing (for once the only adequate word) a finale not just of pace but tremendous inner momentum. Very occasionally one experiences an instance when a collective and wholly focussed frenzy seems to overtake an orchestra – a ‘Dionysiac moment’ where you know that something has been set in motion which simply cannot be stopped. It is a mark of Mackerras’s Prospero-like powers that he was able to summon up this electrifying account. The Philharmonia played like Gods. Fortunately for Birmingham the concert is repeated there this-evening (21 June) and fortunately for the rest of us the London one was recorded.

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