Philharmonia Orchestra/Mackerras Lise de la Salle – Mozart & Elgar

Symphony No.32 in G, K318 (Overture in the Italian Style)
Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K466
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55

Lise de la Salle (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 12 February, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Now approaching his mid-eighties, Sir Charles Mackerras continues to deliver performances of the highest order. In fact had you not been aware of who was on the podium you would have thought these performances were from a young conductor discovering these works for the first time.

With a responsive Philharmonia Orchestra, Mozart’s short but sweet Overture in the Italian Style was everything you could wish for, the opening Allegro spiritoso taut and springy, the Andante serene, the finale colourful and witty, the pace never forced.

Lise de la Salle. Photograph: Stéphane GalloisIf only Lise de la Salle had been on the same wavelength. The much-praised young French star here seemed out of sorts. This is only one of two Mozart piano concertos in a minor key, a dark work that heavily influenced Beethoven, whose cadenzas were performed here. Lise de la Salle came across too often as heavy-handed. Certainly Mackerras took a more-austere vision of the dark-hued opening Allegro but there was always sufficient lightness of touch to remind that this was Mozart we were listening to and not Beethoven. Here de la Salle and Mackerras seemed to differ in their views. Maybe Beethoven’s cadenzas influenced her whole interpretation, which was also too staccato in the ‘Romanza’. The finale, delightfully agile and nimble from the orchestra, but again de la Salle’s hard-driven and unsettling approach suggested that we were listening to Beethoven on a bad day.

What followed, however, was a quite magnificent performance of Elgar’s First Symphony. Seen for years as a work epitomising Edwardian bombast, Mackerras stripped away any such notions from the very beginning. A performance that, at 47 minutes, was against the increasing trend for longer, more spacious accounts but which also got to the heart of Elgar’s score.

Sir Charles Mackerras. Photograph: Clive BardaThe great ‘motto’ theme that opens the symphony marched purposely and confidently forward, never lingering in nostalgia or a rose-tinted view of ‘Empire’. This was a performance which brought out what Michael Kennedy has called “the contradictory elements of (Elgar’s) own nature”, the sections of tenderness and unease seemingly battling for supremacy in a tempestuous first movement: the rasping brass at the climax of the development section was nothing short of frightening in its portent of doom.

The scherzo was almost demonic in its opening passages but managed to switch masterfully to the wistful trio section and then into the slow movement without any awkward gear changes. The Adagio itself was a imperious piece of pacing, swiftly taken but with no loss of tenderness or deep feeling, the rapt closing passages movingly played. The finale was thrilling; swiftly taken yet without feeling rushed, Mackerras’s pacing was as unerringly true as in the rest of the symphony. If the strings sounded a mite lean throughout the work, the struggle of the ‘motto’ theme to reassert itself and its final victory really brought a lump to the throat. Quite wonderful!

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