Philharmonia Orchestra/Mackerras – 15 & 17 May

15 May

The Cunning Little Vixen – Suite (arr. Mackerras)
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55

17 May

Othello – Concert Overture, Op.93
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90

Sarah Chang (violin)

Nikolai Lugansky (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 May, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

A free night from the responsibilities of reviewing – so I go to a concert! It was an unintended Plan B – the allotted critic for the first of these Philharmonia Orchestra concerts met with an unfortunate mishap en route to the Festival Hall, which required medical attention. Rather than fall on his sword for one last report, the contributor concerned lives to scribe on many more occasions. I was down for the second concert anyway.

It’s a shrewd move on the Philharmonia’s part to sign-up Sir Charles Mackerras as its Principal Guest Conductor – sparks fly when they get together. Maybe too much so in the Brahms, which in the outer movements hustled and bustled to untimely effect; the horns were often too loud, albeit much else was sensitively balanced. The middle movements were altogether more arresting, Mackerras making distinct what can be two slow movements. It’s rare that this particular Brahms symphony ends a concert; it concludes quietly – thus the too early applause into what should be reflective silence was regrettable.

These concerts made a thoughtfully planned pair – Elgar had particular admiration for Brahms’s Third, the chosen concertos are possibly the most popular within their respective genres, and Mackerras is sine qua non in Czech music.

In both concertos the fresh response from the Philharmonia was a pleasure in itself – nothing routine here as Mackerras scooped out and placed detail with a rigour and sensibility that was bespoke rather than off the peg. No doubting Sarah Chang’s passion and communication either, although her playing was as much accomplishment as interpretation.

Nikolai Lugansky breathed new life into Tchaikovsky’s imposing concerto – it was certainly grand, the famous opening tune given with a majesty that was also part of a groundplan that integrated episodes into a cohesive whole. There was no lack of bravura on Lugansky’s part, equally there was nothing that was ostentatious, technique a means to an musical end; high-water marks and intimate expression seemed indivisible as the long (here, 23 minutes) first movement ran its inevitable course. Lugansky’s lightness of touch and dexterity in the second movement’s scherzando section was pure delight (capped by a magical diminuendo returning us to the slower music), so too his unforced if determined traversal of the Finale. Maybe a recording is planned?

Of Mackerras’s own suite from Janácek’s opera, little need be said; I gather he used Janácek’s original manuscript for his continuous extracts. Janácek’s individuality (quirkiness) was seized upon, and whether in clarity of detail, phrasal fondness or rhythmic liberation, everything made sense. Dvořák’s tone-poem treatment of Othello isn’t among his best works (I write this believing Dvořák to be one of the great composers), the musical ideas shared with In Nature’s Realm and Carnival (Othello’s overture companions) being the best. Yet some raptly beautiful string playing in the opening measures and Mackerras’s dramatic thrust certainly made Othello’s inclusion worthwhile.

While some less than idiosyncratic impulses lost Brahms his classical sense of structure, Mackerras’s ’sands of time’ flexibility was ideal for Elgar – as Anthony Payne notes, Elgar’s German counterpart is Schumann, not Brahms. The opening motto was mostly ’semplice’ with a hint of ’nobilmente’, the turn into the ’Allegro’ exquisitely judged, the ebb and flow of emotion measured to a nicety, so too instrumental balance. The Scherzo had a militaristic edge, more invasive threat than imperial pomp – the real Elgar. The thematically related (and co-joined) ’Adagio’ was of molten tenderness, the pianissimo recall held the breath. The Finale launched under a welter of coughs, Mackerras and the Philharmonia were as one charting from shadows to resolution and opening up eloquent vistas along the way. A magnificent performance.

One curiosity was Mackerras’s disposition of the strings – both first halves had them arranged violins to cellos, left to right (the now standard way). For both symphonies, cellos and second violins swapped places; thus violins were antiphonal, as one would expect with Sir Charles, and the music benefited accordingly from using yesteryear’s standard placement. Double basses formed a row back-centre. Perhaps the banner should be: expect the unexpected with Sir Charles Mackerras.

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