Philharmonia Orchestra/Mackerras (8 November)

Symphonic Variations, Op.78
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Maria João Pires (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 8 November, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This was Beethoven night in London – violin sonatas at the Wigmore Hall, the Choral at the Barbican, and the Philharmonia’s diptych.

Mackerras seated the eight double basses in a left-positioned line across the back of the hall. In the Festival Hall this arrangement makes perfect acoustic sense, the bass line is significantly more present.

Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations is a jewel of a piece which is all too infrequently played. It is Dvořák at the height of his considerable powers; here it received a jewel of a performance. Mackerras’s Czech affinities are well-known and, here, the sense of a conductor and orchestra at one with the music – balanced, urbane and affectionate – was palpable, the violas making the warmest of contributions at the work’s opening. There was also a fine violin solo from Christopher Warren-Green and the most sensitive flute contribution in the variation immediately following. Since we are lucky to have Mackerras, maybe the Philharmonia will programme the glorious F major symphony (No.5)?

The C minor concerto gave London a welcome chance to hear the wonderful Maria João Pires. Diminutive she may be but, as well as the expected delicacy, there was no lack of power where needed. Like Curzon, Pires seems to pay particular attention to fingering, using it to elucidate and shape the phrases (rather than simply as a means of playing the notes). The slow movement had a depth and inwardness entirely right, the finale a vivacity and variety of colouring; perhaps the throwaway coda lacked the last ounce of wit and insouciance which Brendel and Pletnev bring to it, but with a performance of the solo part this good who’s complaining. The orchestral accompaniment was better in the operatic slow movement and the finale than in the first movement, which was foursquare and literal, too little attention paid to the all-important pauses.

The Seventh Symphony received a rapturous reception, which struck one as less deserved. Mackerras re-seated the orchestra with violins divided left and right, the cellos centre-left, and therefore in contact with the double basses, which were reinforced by two contrabassoons; there were also three valve-less trumpets to add a ’period’ rasp to the sound.

This was a raucous performance. Beethoven’s music certainly has the ’shock of the new’; however, this was unvaryingly raucous, scrappily played – Mackerras’s extreme speed for the scherzo gave the orchestra little chance – and, overall, paid scant attention to dynamics, especially in the finale. The first-movement repeat was taken, as were most in the scherzo. The performance as a whole was monotonously one-dimensional, all-purpose frenzy substituted for attention to detail and clear articulation, the music’s energy and momentum dissipated by the constant blare of sound.

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