Philharmonia Orchestra/Mackerras Yefim Bronfman [A Midsummer Night’s Dream … Pathétique Symphony]

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Overture, Op.21
Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K491
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

0 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 5 February, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Sir Charles Mackerras. Photograph: Clive BardaAudiences can make or break or concerts. This one ‘made’ it. That its numbers were fewer than expected (for such a popular programme) might have been significant. With a couple of exceptions, the members of this audience sat and listened, didn’t create noise, and didn’t applaud between movements (not even after the third-movement March of the ‘Pathétique’).

Mendelssohn’s miraculous Overture to Shakespeare’s play (to which he later added further music) here received as nimble and spectral an account as could be imagined (although fortissimos were somewhat coarse-sounding and textures surprisingly coagulated). One novelty was the use of Mendelssohn’s requested ophicleide, a now-obsolete instrument belonging to the bugle family. Normally a tuba is substituted for it, but the ophicleide’s timbre is closer to a contrabassoon. Whether four double basses is enough for this music is a moot point, but it was a rambunctious account with no lack of tenderness when required.

Yefim Bronfman. Photograph: Dario AcostaSir Charles’s ‘authentic’ credentials extended to valve-less horns and ‘period’ trumpets and timpani. It was three double bassists for the Mozart. Yefim Bronfman is quite capable of being the Grand Romantic Pianist when required; in Mozart he was restrained and sensitive but with no lack of character and insight. Indeed this primus inter pares traversal excelled in teamwork, Bronfman as interested in the orchestra as in his own playing, and the Philharmonia’s woodwind players were in exalted form. C minor the work may be in, tragedy in the air, but tempos were motivated without denuding a sense of foreboding. Bronfman’s inwardness, as well as his dexterity and clarity, were especially revealing, and his own cadenzas for the outer movements were models of integrity (the first one intruded upon by a ringing mobile!). In terms of drawing the listener in, and being as penetrating as it was unaffected, this was a performance in a thousand.

It’s quite possible that Sir Charles Mackerras is not particularly associated with the music of Tchaikovsky (this writer recalls a BBC Radio 3 broadcast many years ago of Suite No.3 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that was very impressive but is not aware of him conducting the symphonies). This ‘Pathétique’ – with the Philharmonia now at full strength, ‘modern’ in timbre and with antiphonal violins – was deeply impressive, notable for seeing each movement whole, and each related, and with a melding of emotionalism and symphonic logic. The opening bassoon solo brooded ideally and was also perfectly poised in expression. There was no lack of fervour, either, but one was also aware of the ‘privacy’ of the music, sinking ever further down to the pppppp clarinet solo that then transferred to bass clarinet rather than the scored-for bassoon. With the ‘thunderbolt’ that then arrived, Mackerras and the Philharmonia unleashed a passionate outpouring, and if brass and timpani tended to outgun the strings, the mood was unerringly caught.

The second-movement Waltz was light on its feet, corners elegantly turned, the tempo maintained for the middle section without losing sight of ominous clouds, which the fireworks of the March cleared with abandon – arguably too fast, Mackerras and the Philharmonia didn’t descend it to a showpiece. The slow finale avoided bathos, silence as potent as sound, the closing bars (some regrettable coughs aside) fading to nothing, to dust, and to a meaningful stillness even after Sir Charles’s baton had descended.

Should you not already be going to the Royal Festival Hall this Sunday afternoon, I suggest you do so to catch the repeat.

  • Concert performed again on Sunday 8 February at 3 p.m.
  • Sir Charles Mackerras and the Philharmonia Orchestra programme Mozart and Elgar on 12 February in Royal Festival Hall
  • Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Philharmonia Orchestra information:
    Freephone 0800 652 6717

  • Southbank Centre

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