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S & H Concert Review

S & H Concert Review

Beethoven Series; Murray Perahia – piano, Janice Watson – soprano, Cornelia Kallisch - mezzo-soprano, Timothy Robinson – tenor, Alfred Reiter – bass, Philharmonia Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus, Sir Charles Mackerras – conductor, RFH, 8th December 2002 (AR)

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 2
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9

At the culmination of the Royal Festival Hall’s Beethoven Cycle the programme notes announced Sir Charles Mackerras as the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor "with immediate effect". This concert proved that Mackerras certainly had an immediate effect on the orchestra: this was some of the most beautiful and assured playing heard from the Philharmonia in recent years. Throughout the concert there was a total rapport between conductor and his players.

In Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto Murray Perahia sounded like a different pianist from the man whose pedestrian playing of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto on the 5th December.. This may have had something to do with Mackerras’s inspired and sensitive accompaniment. The reduced Philharmonia (with just four double basses placed back-centre of the platform) surprisingly produced a rich string sound. The first movement - Allegro con brio - Perahia played with a sharply etched, dark poignancy, progressing into a Mozartian light lyricism where shifts of key resulted in changes of mood. Perahia’s audacious playing of the cadenza sounded close to modern jazz in its spontaneity.

The Adagio ended with Perahia’s playing taking on yet another persona, having a distinctly vulnerable and fragmented quality, as if Beethoven’s world was breaking apart at the edges, and Mackerras’s sensitive accompaniment brought deeply grained playing of the ‘cellos and double basses. In the finale - Rondo: Molto allegro - Perahia produced playing of great rhythmic buoyancy, his fingers bouncing along the key board as if jumping with joy; there was inspired and witty playing here. Again, the conductor gave very refined support, getting the Philharmonia to play with both precision and great passion. My only regret is that this perfectly conceived performance was not recorded.

While the opening bars of the Ninth had a great sustained tension it didn’t quite have the white-hot intensity of Otto Klemperer’s ‘live’ Philharmonia account (15,11,1957, Royal Festival Hall). Klemperer was one of the few conductors who rightly emphasised the forward thrust of the trumpets and horns, here somewhat reined in by Mackerras. However, the conductor did adopt a Klemperer-like grip on structure and a measured, rock-steady forward momentum. Notably intense and beautifully articulated was Andrew Smith’s firm and assured timpani playing giving this movement its shattering energy and power.

The Scherzo: Molto vivace – had great rhythmic flare and lift with the inspired timpanist again producing playing of the greatest intensity. The woodwind were in top form producing a very pronounced and pointed sound.

The Adagio opened with a subdued and sublime string sound which took on a ghostly, ephemeral quality. The conductor’s pacing of this sublime music made it flow with great liquidity and passion, never sinking into the sloppiness of the ‘slowing-down’ school of conducting: Mackerras made the music speak purely and directly, devoid of wilful mannerisms. The Presto – Allegro assai opened as if the orchestra were on fire, so intense was the playing. The ‘cellos came in with some of the most atmospherically quiet and sustained playing I’ve ever heard. Here the conductor slowly built up the sound and tension. As the movement progressed, the level of emotion became swooningly intense. This mood was charmingly broken by the humorous, even camp ‘Turkish’ march, adding a welcome touch of carnival. Mackerras drove the work to its famed celebratory conclusion without allowing the music to become too frenzied, making the Ode to Joy sound as it should - sublime. Mackerras’s overtly operatic reading of the score must spring from the conductor’s life-time experience as one of the world’s great opera conductors. This dramatic performance proved the saying that Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, (like Verdi’s requiem), is in part the greatest opera Beethoven never wrote.

Alfred Reiter’s seductive bass was passionate if a little strained in its upper register, whilst Janice Watson (substituting for an indisposed Ruth Ziesak) bordered on the hysterical side, as if chanting a protest rather than singing. Cornelia Kallisch and Timothy Robinson were in superb form and the Philharmonia Chorus sang with exemplary verve and a deeply felt passion, justifying Robert Dean’s well deserved applause as Chorus Master.

This was a joyous afternoon and a fitting climax to a somewhat uneven Beethoven Cycle. This superb concert augers well for Sir Charles Mackerras’ appointment as Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Alex Russell

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