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S & H Concert Review

Janacek, Bruch, Elgar; Sarah Chang (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras, RFH, 15th May 2003 (AR)


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quoted in Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony – was devoid of sentimentality, with Chang making it sound brooding and withdrawn.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 powerful accompaniment.

"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.

Alex Russell


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