Sir Charles Mackerras Memorial Concert

Opening Address by Anthony Andrews
Music for the Royal Fireworks
Messiah – How beautiful are the feet
Samson – Let the bright seraphim
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70
Sinfonia concertante in E flat for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, K364
The Cunning Little Vixen – Suite [arr. Tálich/Smetácek, rev. Mackerras]; Final Scene

Mhairi Lawson (soprano)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Steven Devine (harpsichord) [Handel]

Julian Rachlin (violin) & Lawrence Power (viola)

Sir Thomas Allen (baritone) & Sebastian Cox (treble) [Janáček]

Philharmonia Orchestra
Tomás Netopil [Dvořák & Mozart]
Alexander Briger [Janáček]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 November, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Sir Charles Mackerras. Photograph: Clive BardaWhat was to have been another appearance with the Philharmonia Orchestra, in anticipation of his 85th-birthday, became a Memorial Concert for Sir Charles Mackerras who died in July. After a dignified opening address by Anthony Andrews, the ambitious three-part programme took in the extent of the conductor’s repertoire and achievement.

The renaissance of Handel’s music in this country owes a great deal to Mackerras’s pioneering efforts, initiating an ‘period’ performing approach on behalf of the operas and oratorios well in advance of present-day authenticity. Appropriate, then, that Music for the Royal Fireworks was chosen to open proceedings. With four trumpets and three each of oboes, bassoons and horns alongside the strings, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment brought a notable degree of majesty then incisiveness to the ‘Overture’, while the ‘Bourrée’ was nimbly dispatched and ‘La paix’ had no mean pathos. A rather stolid and inaccurate ‘La Réjouissance’ was most likely the price paid for Steven Devine’s directing from the harpsichord rather than conducting, while his decision to place the ‘Second Minuet’ before rather in the midst of its predecessor robbed the ‘First Minuet’ of cumulative power.

The OAE evinced no lack of finesse in the arias that followed – Mhairi Lawson (replacing an indisposed Rebecca Evans) as sensitive in ‘How beautiful are the feet’ from “Messiah” as she was deft in ‘Let the bright seraphim’ from “Samson”, where David Blackadder’s obbligato trumpet was a pleasure in itself.

The second part was devoted to Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, of which Mackerras gave memorable performances with the Philharmonia Orchestra (the most recent of which is now available on a Signum CD). While Tomás Netopil is not overly a conductor in the Mackerras mould, he certainly had the measure of the work – the first movement, just a little inert in its opening pages, generating real drama in the development and an electrifying lead-in to the reprise, prior to a resigned coda. The slow movement tempered its songful aspects with real expressive strength, then the scherzo (with some exceptional woodwind playing in the trio) was rightly held in check until the end when the Furiant rhythm was given its head. Always a difficult movement to gauge, the finale built intently to an apotheosis of fatalistic triumph – setting the seal on a fine reading overall. Hopefully Netopil will be working with the Philharmonia again and soon.

The third part began with the later and more imposing Sinfonia concertante of Mozart – an account in which Netopil proved equally adept as accompanist, while drawing a soulful response from the Philharmonia strings in one of the composer’s most affecting slow movements. Otherwise this was a curate’s egg of a performance: not that repartee between the soloists was lacking, but Julian Rachlin seemed unable to distinguish insight from point-making, which perhaps made the redoubtable Lawrence Power rather more self-conscious in his phrasing than would otherwise have been the case.

It was only right that the evening closed with Janáček, whose cause Mackerras championed from the outset of his career and whose recordings of the operas, in particular, surely constitute his greatest legacy. His editorial skill is not least evident in the suite from “The Cunning Little Vixen” – restoring the musical texture (as modified under the supervision of Václav Tálich and revised by Václav Smetácek) to the bracing astringency intended by the composer and including more music so that the first act is heard as a near-continual entity, so making the Suite more cohesive and representative as a result.

The performance itself was finely conducted by Alexander Briger, bringing out the music’s quizzical humour and luminous eloquence in equal measure. Having recounted an amusing Mackerras anecdote, Briger (the conductor’s nephew) recalled that Sir Charles had requested the Final Scene of the opera be played at the end of any memorial event. As it was here and, with affecting contributions from Sir Thomas Allen (as the Gamekeeper) and Sebastian Cox (as the Frog), it worked much of its magic even when heard out of context: Mackerras’s choice of music could not have been more fitting.

There was still time for a brief encore in the ‘Overture’ from Pineapple Poll, the ballet after the music of Arthur Sullivan that first brought Mackerras to prominence in the UK and towards which, as with all his musical loves, he never wavered. It duly rounded off a memorable evening in scintillating fashion.

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