Philharmonia Orchestra/Mackerras – 13 November

Strauss
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche
Shostakovich
Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat, Op.107
Sibelius
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

David Cohen (cello)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras


Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 13 November, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Strauss wrote Till Eulenspiegel for orchestra after deciding not to write an opera about him. The piece is a sensational, episodic rondo, confidently orchestrated – a virtuoso accomplishment for a youngish man of 31. The music – exuberant and roguish for the most part – was devised in the mid-1890s after a holiday in Italy. Let us acclaim Italy! Several years later, Sibelius and his family came to Rapallo, where he wrote his dramatic and triumphant Second Symphony.

Mackerras’s performance of Till – very clear – had considerable vigour. The various episodes were exactly demarcated and differing orchestral combinations pinpointed. Changes in tempi were satisfactorily gradated.

Yet something was missing. The performance was uncontroversial. It excited not, nor disturbed. I missed Strauss’s luscious, sensual sheen and characteristically exultant upward surges from the strings. I missed the fire. I missed the Breughel factor – the exuberant, brassy, rumbustious humour and earthy pastoral vitality.

Cellists do not undertake to play Shostakovich’s first cello concerto lightly. The writing is difficult – and taxing physically. The soloist opens the piece – and plays without respite until the second movement tutti. The cadenza is the entire third movement – hurtling into the hectic, condensed finale.

This exciting music makes ferocious technical demands. In the very first few bars, David Cohen advertised his command of the score. Thereafter – with his head curled round the cello’s neck, peering down towards the bridge – he tossed off bar after bar of wayward, febrile difficulty, unconcerned. This amazing cellist, 23 years old, became Principal Cello of the Philharmonia Orchestra immediately on leaving the Guildhall School of Music and Drama last year. Due to his total mastery of the notes, David Cohen survived the concerto brilliantly, but the concerto does not yet bear his imprint. Fittingly, the accompaniment lacked characterisation, too.

The Sibelius was another matter. Twice, in under a fortnight, the Philharmonia has blazoned Sibelius’s glory and spoken his authentic idiom. (The other occasion was Segerstam conducting the Fifth Symphony on November 2.)

Among many indelible sonic memories are the Philharmonia’s mastery of moods, the woodwind’s delicacy, the brass’s rasps, and the timpanist almost throughout – from his exquisitely soft moments to the jubilant banging, of ’extra’ notes often unplayed. At the end, the magnificent surging climax – ever-louder and apparently never-ending (imagine – Sir Charles rivalling Sir Thomas Beecham!). And – ringingly audible in that joyous noise – the double basses’ commanding pizzicato. Supreme – and making amends for an untidy and uncertain opening – I register the barely audible but utterly firm final chord to the first movement, rarely heard as such, and perfectly judged.

Three times Sir Charles tried to cajole the Philharmonia into taking a bow, utterly deservedly. The players refused each time. They were too busy – seriously acclaiming him, utterly deservedly.

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