Philharmonia Orchestra Concert – 7th March

Egmont – Overture, Op.84
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 ’Eroica’

Murray Perahia (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 March, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Wolfgang Sawallisch’s indisposition could have spelt disaster for the first phase of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Beethoven cycle. Lucky that Sir Charles Mackerras was available to give it the launch it needed by taking-over the first two instalments.

A conductor with a Beethoven pedigree stretching back half a century, Mackerras has long taken a keen interest in ’period instrument’ practice, reflected in the disposition of his moderately-sized forces. With violins divided left and right, and basses lined across the upper rear of the platform, the music projected with clarity and impact – enhanced by the swift tempi that Mackerras chooses.

Such qualities were to the fore in Egmont. No portentous introduction here – instead, the music moved forward decisively to its conclusion, though pacing in the main body of the overture was a little too precipitate, which pre-empted the uninhibited triumph the coda exudes.

Murray Perahia has undergone a fair sea-change in technique since recording his much-lauded Beethoven cycle in the mid-1980s. How much this is owing to a hand injury sustained some ten years ago is unclear, but the force and vigour with which he attacked the opening movement of the C major concerto came as a surprise. A welcome one, however, in that the recklessness with which Beethoven redefines the Mozartian archetype was evident at every turn – above all in the explosive brio with which Perahia despatched the biggest of the three cadenzas. Maybe the ’Largo’ could have done with more inward sonority in its lengthy coda, but the poetry and pathos were never in doubt, while Mackerras ensured the ’Finale’ had energy without bombast, Perahia making the most of the exquisite tonal side-steps in the ’false cadenza’.

As for the ’Eroica’, Mackerras’s approach was above all combative. Some choppy phrasing in the development marred the first movement, headlong in pacing and lean in timbre – the climactic dischords going for surprisingly little – though the coda built securely and inexorably to its heaven-storming close. The ’Marcia funebre’ brought a salutary reminder that Beethoven is here commemorating personal failing (i.e. of Napoleon) and belief therein, rather than generalised human tragedy with which this music has become synonymous. The ’Scherzo’ moved persuasively between the shimmering and the robust, while the ’Finale’ put the ’Prometheus theme’ swiftly yet flexibly through its paces – the climax nobly but fluidly rendered, the coda joyous in no-nonsense terms. An ’Eroica’ which located the heroism firmly within the music, conveying it in unequivocal terms.

Mackerras received two personal podium calls at the behest of the Orchestra. No wonder – a week ago, the prospects for this Beethoven cycle had looked anything but heroic.

  • This cycle continues on Tuesday, 12 March, with the Violin Concerto (Frank Peter Zimmermann) and Symphony No.4 – Marek Janowski conducts. On Thursday, the 14th, Matthias Bamert is in charge for Symphony No.5 and Piano Concerto No.4 (Perahia)
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201
  • The Philharmonia’s 1955 recording of the ’Eroica’ with Otto Klemperer has just been re-issued – click here to read review

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