In Natures Realm, Op.91
Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K488
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14
Maria João Pires (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 25 June, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
If I hadn’t known Sir Charles Mackerras was conducting I wouldn’t have guessed – despite clues such as enthusiasm and energy. The music was alive, no doubt about that or the Philharmonia’s response – committed and resourceful, group character overriding less than precise ensemble to project the spirit of the pieces.
Mackerras doesn’t aspire to sensationalism; he’s far too good a musician for that. Nevertheless, Berlioz’s boundary-breaking symphony lacked poise and consideration. The second movement waltz brought smiles from the players; they were having ‘A Ball’, yet Mackerras’s driving of the coda rendered it shapeless. Similarly, at the close of the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’, Mackerras pushed hard on the accelerator, which brought the house down. All I heard was noise! This movement brought a miscalculation of balance. The bells – positioned off-stage – were fine for their solo peal if not timbrally doom-laden enough (Berlioz left precise instructions as to what he wanted) yet virtually inaudible against the brass. The ‘March to the Scaffold’ – surely designed by Berlioz for the audience-member whose mobile rung in the preceding movement – was neither fated or savage enough; Berlioz seems to have wanted a very deliberate tempo; this allows the timpani rhythm to really lay bare the morbidity, a presage of something terrifying. Mackerras bid the trombones’ ‘farts’ be dominant; intended as underscoring this effect became irritating. Tuttis were shrill – Boulez’s censure of Berlioz for over-trebling his harmony seemed justified.
On the plus side, the ‘reveries and passions’ of the first movement were vibrantly conveyed – wild, impulsive and volatile – and Mackerras revealed just how indebted Berlioz was to Beethoven in the ‘country scene’ third movement; the allusions to the ‘Pastoral Symphony’ quite striking here. Surprising, given Mackerras’s Czech connections, that Dvorak’s own communion with nature was tense and rushed; this was a hike with little wonderment of the landscape.
Maria João Pires offered Mozart rather than Schumann’s concerto. Curious that Mackerras put his violins together for this when the antiphonal arrangement used for the other music would have been just as pertinent. Pires’s light-toned Yamaha (preferred to the RFH’s Steinway) was a delight, as was her poetic and sensitive playing. The ‘Finale’ could have been more varied – the episodes seemed to come round once too often – the soloist sometimes gabbling rather than articulating. Her integration with the small orchestra, the soulful slow movement and the Orchestra’s typically personable woodwind stole the concert – an intimate moment in a hyperactive concert.