Sir Charles Mackerras, Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia
Orchestra, is arguably one of the most versatile conductors working
today with a repertoire ranging from such diverse composers as Handel
and Donizetti to Britten and Janacek.
Mackerras has done more than any
other living conductor to put Janacek on the map and it was fitting
that he started his programme with The Cunning Little Vixen Suite.
Here Mackerras initiated crisp playing from the Philharmonia, achieving
that particularly brittle, spikey ‘Janacek sound’, especially from the
violins, and visceral trombones. The orchestral textures were perfectly
balanced with every individual of this great orchestra shining through.
Just over a decade ago the late Yehudi Menuhin described Sarah Chang
as: "the most wonderful, perfect, ideal violinist I had ever
heard." Her performance of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1
did much to confirm this glowing tribute.
After the pianissimo tremolo
on the timpani (Prelude: Allegro moderato) Chang’s opening passage
had a stark cutting intensity which immediately seized one’s attention.
Her extraordinary tone was dark with an acidic, cutting edge to it –
garnets soaked in vinegar. Her playing was refreshingly ‘raw’, producing
sounds which had a great emotional impact. The famous melody in the
Adagio – overtly quoted in Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony
– was devoid of sentimentality, with Chang making it sound brooding
and withdrawn. Even an extremely loud and persistent cougher failed
to shatter the radiance and intensity of her playing. Her tough and
rugged account of the Finale Allegro energico had a complete
mastery of the Hungarian gypsy swagger essential to this music.
Sarah Chang is a passionate communicator,
and her vigorous and unique style of playing transcends mere virtuosity;
this was a sublime performance from a truly great artist. Mackerras
and the Philharmonia gave this familiar concerto an authoritative and
"Gentlemen, now let us
rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times by the greatest modern
composer - and not only in this country."
That was Hans Richter’s verdict of Sir Edward Elgar’s First Symphony
in 1908. Mackerras’ illuminating interpretation of this symphony went
a long way to justify Richter’s verdict.
His reading was intensely personal
and totally unlike any other performance I have heard. The hallmark
of his reading was reserve and restraint, free of the rhetorical excess
and meretricious effects which tended to mar Barbirolli’s performances.
The Andante Noblimente e semplice has an uncanny air of tranquillity
and melancholia when stripped of the usual pomp and brashness to which
this movement can all too easily lend itself. Thus, the powerful brass
interjections made their sudden entries with increased bite and impact
due to the subdued reserve of Mackerras’ subtle reading.
The Adagio – surely one
of the greatest slow movements ever written – was very restrained, with
the strings playing extremely quietly, making the music even more moving.
Often this movement is played calculatingly to wring the heartstrings,
as in Barbirolli’s overemotional approach, but Mackerras understands
instinctively that less is more – in this case, less schmaltz equals
more poignancy, and a genuine pathos.
After this deeply moving musical
experience, the closing Lento seemed almost like an anticlimax.
However, Mackerras conducted the Lento with a kind of voluptuous
grandeur, at the same time giving the music an unusually haunting and
intoxicating quality. He slowly built up the tension and intensity with
the reprise of the militaristic theme, finally ending this great work
in a jubilant cascade of sound.
Mackerras and the Philharmonia
Orchestra have an enormous creative rapport, amply illustrated by the
handling of these three diverse works in an evening of inspired music-making.