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PIRES AND MACKERRAS at RFH Mozart Piano Concerto K488 in A; Dvorak In Nature's Realm; Berlioz Symphonie fantastique Philharmonia/Sir Charles Mackerras Royal Festival Hall, 25 June 2002 (PGW)



Reading in The Times that Brendel (playing Mozart in Aldeburgh last week) had been on 'auto-pilot', prompted thoughts about his Piano Concerto K488, heard last night at the RFH. Replacing the Schumann concerto scheduled, it was given a straightforward run-through by Maria João Pires, whom I had admired in recital at Wigmore Hall and in her recordings of Schumann. She had, one presumed, flown in specially and was greeted rapturously by a full Royal Festival Hall.

Unusually, I took along a score hoping to glean some special insights from this revered pianist. There were none; she played that popular concerto neatly - more legato and less pointedly than I would prefer. This is relatively easy music to play, however many subtle nuances might be contrived to satisfy the palates of super-sensitive Mozartian gourmets, and many a student pianist could have brought to it a more eager freshness than did Pires. There was nothing of the élan and adventurousness which Robert Levin on fortepiano brings to Mozart concertos, and those bare notes spanning two and a half octaves, sketched in by Mozart towards the end of the slow movement, were given literally and unadorned, despite the conductor being Sir Charles Mackerras, who many decades ago had surprised us by introducing embellishments in his period-aware Mozart opera performances. Mackerras buried himself deferentially behind the lid of the piano (I remember Sir Adrian Boult as being possibly the first conductor to do this?). From centre stalls, that made it hard to hear the flute hidden behind - perhaps the wind group should be placed to the sides of the piano?

These curmudgeonly reflections are doubtless coloured by having spent four hours the previous evening at Ian Pace's marathon concert at King's College, which is unlikely to be reviewed in the 'major' press, and certainly will not reap commensurate financial rewards. Although I continue to find Mozart's operas untiringly fascinating (three seen recently in Berlin plus two recently released CDs each of Figaro & the Don) I am strongly inclined towards Norman Lebrecht's provocative views about Mozart overkill and The Mostly Mozart Festival, 'celebrating the world's most popular composer', which has been raking in the $s in USA and is poised to collect the ús at the Barbican next month.

Dvorak's In Nature's Realm, the gentlest of his three linked concert overtures, was welcome for its rarity; not the most subtle account of it, as balanced within the Philharmonia, and emphasising the more bucolic elements. Berlioz's imperishable Fantastic Symphony was as extraordinary as ever - an astonishing conception for 1830. But the March to the Scaffold and Witches' Sabbath movements unleashed such power that I was glad I had opted beforehand to retreat from my allocated seat to the front Terrace Stalls; distance also gave more mystery to the dialogue between cor-anglais and oboe in the Scène aux champs. Berlioz is a modernist for all times.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Note: To follow the reasoning in this short report, readers should please click onto the hyperlinks highlighted. (PGW)


Maria João Pires : "Maria Joao Pires lives on a farm in rural Portugal with her four children, and recommends 'milking a goat as a wonderful finger exercise' - - is today's foremost Portuguese pianist - - has achieved praise for her Mozart performances - - A serious car accident halted her career; when she recovered some critics felt she had become an even better musician than before - - prefers the recording studio to the concert hall - - "

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