Philharmonia/Mackerras Emanuel Ax

Mozart
La clemenza di Tito – Overture
Piano Concerto No.25 in C, K503
Mahler
Symphony No.4

Emanuel Ax (piano)

Sarah Fox (soprano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras


Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 11 February, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Sir Charles Mackerras is noted for his interest in authentic performance, so it was somewhat predictable that he would use appropriate brass and timpani in the Mozart half of the concert.Certainly in the operatic overture there was pleasing clarity and weight to the sound with plenty of attack, minimal vibrato and exemplary phrasing from the woodwinds. In the concerto there was much of the same, but the horns were largely inaudible in forte passages. Nonetheless, the first movement opened with a well-pointed orchestral exposition, with plenty of dynamic variation and some delightful phrasing: qualities that would illuminate the entire work. When Emanuel Ax entered, we moved into a totally different world, one with a lack of emotional range and dynamics only from piano to mezzo-forte. Ax likes his Mozart exceptionally clean and unadorned with neither pedal much in evidence – a depressing experience.

Whether the Queen Elizabeth Hall is apt for Mahler symphonies is arguable, but at least the Fourth uses a relatively small orchestra (no trombones) and includes triple woodwind and battery of percussion. The decision to shed ten string players was presumably dictated by the hall’s size; unfortunately this led to balance and tonal problems: in the first ff outburst in the first movement and in the massive climax towards the end of slow movement the strings were completely swamped; when the cellos launched the second subject of the first movement they were undernourished – as was the string sound throughout the slow movement. The woodwinds were also far too prominent: in the scherzo, the clarinet’s bucolic commentary was ridiculously loud.

Then there was the use of portamento, as in early 20th-century performance practice, as a means of heightening expression; Barbirolli used slides for subtle emotional underlining; Mackerras used the effect as another way of adding colour that became predictable and wearying. And Mackerras’s tempo changes, while avoiding extremes, sounded forced and lacked seamless integration.

In the first movement, the opening was fast and sprung but there was no sense of fantasy and ambiguity of feeling, and while the second subject brought a slight slowing, there was no underlying longing or angst. The entire movement just seemed to bounce along on the surface. The scherzo lacked any sense of the macabre and the night music episodes lacked languor. In the great slow movement the tempo was quite fast and the phrasing very smooth – never once was there any duality of expression or true innigkeit. And the last movement’s scherzando elements were far too fast: a child’s view of heaven from a skateboard. Sarah Fox tried to inject some feeling into proceedings but sounded weak and unfocused.

  • Concert repeated on 16 February with Mozart’s G major concerto (K453) played by Anderszewski
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