Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Mackerras Sarah Chang

Der fliegende Holländer – Overture
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.93

Sarah Chang (violin)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Reviewed by: Glyn Môn Hughes

Reviewed: 14 January, 2009
Venue: Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

Musically, 2008 was bound to be a hard act to follow, with some of the world’s greatest names either gracing the stage of Philharmonic Hall or being commissioned to write new pieces for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra during the city’s year as European Capital of Culture.

Sarah Chang. Photograph: Cliff Watts/EMI ClassicsThe start of 2009, however, looked decidedly promising with the first Liverpool appearance of American violinist Sarah Chang playing one of those great monoliths of the musical repertoire – Brahms’s Violin Concerto. She played to a sell-out audience, a legacy of 2008 when Philharmonic audience figures rose by 24 percent.

Sir Charles Mackerras, now 83 and looking frail – a chair was provided on the rostrum should he decide to conduct sitting down – was making his first Liverpool performance since being appointed Conductor Emeritus of the RLPO. His predecessor in this role, Vernon Handley, died in September.

However, this heavily promoted concert seemed to leave people a little perplexed. Here was a note-perfect performance of the Brahms that lacked sparkle, a dazzling demonstration of technique that never really fizzed with excitement. It was time for polite applause rather than ecstatic cheering.

Sir Charles Mackerras. Photograph: Clive BardaThis concerto is a massive conception and the first movement is as draining for the listener as it is for the soloist. Chang certainly put a great deal of energy into the opening Allegro but it often faded away into nothingness – pianissimo taken too far with people only a few rows from the stage complaining that they could not hear her playing. The development section proved a particularly searching episode while the slow movement was something of an emotional roller-coaster – sometimes quite light-hearted, at other times lugubrious, almost sinister. The finale began to see soloist and orchestra really come alive with some assured playing – the only part of the work which saw a real spark.

The Overture to “The Flying Dutchman” showed Mackerras at his best – back in the pit of the opera house: he was, after all, music director of Sadler’s Wells between 1970 and 1977 and Welsh National Opera between 1987 and 1992. He made the piece, which uses most of the large orchestra most of the time, sufficiently varied to maintain added interest beyond the complexities of the Wagner’s musical language. The menacing opening had some fine playing from the horns while the lower strings’ quieter passages were particularly memorable.

A bright and sometimes breathless performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony concluded the concert, the first movement producing some real edge-of-seat playing. The scherzo, too, produced a good deal of excitement as well as some highly subtle moments that faded, almost, to nothing. This was the performance that fired the audience.

  • Concert played again on Friday 16 January
  • RLPO

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