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Mackerras Brahms Cycle (III): James Ehnes (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, 5 April, 2005 (AR)

Charles Mackerras and the Philharmonia Orchestra continued their superlative Brahms cycle with a spirited account of the composer’s Academic Festival Overture. Mackerras’ tempi were brisk and taut, securing the thrusting line of this majestic music. Again the Philharmonia were in brilliant form playing with great panache and aplomb. After recently hearing less than secure playing from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the RFH one realises why the Philharmonia remains one of the world’s leading symphony orchestras.

Mozart’s concerti do not sit well beside Brahms in concert (nor, for that matter, with Mahler, with whom they are also frequently coupled) and his Violin Concerto No. 5, K219 just sounded like being on alien territory: a light-weight, pristine and sedate party piece - not the most challenging of concerti for a violinist of James Ehnes’ undoubted talent. However, he played the Allegro moderato in a refreshingly direct and simple manner with lean and sparse phrasing producing shards of light from his bow. The Adagio was refined and eloquent, consciously understated and devoid of excessive sweetness. Soloist and orchestra switched mood and metre with the concluding Presto playing with an earthy ruggedness teasing out the 18th century characterisation of quasi-Middle-Eastern sounding music which gave birth to the concerto’s nickname ‘The Turkish’.

Like Mackerras’ recent paradigmatic accounts of the First and Third Brahms Symphonies, his rigorous interpretation of the Fourth Symphony was perfectly realised in conception and execution, eschewing the sluggish romanticism that has bedevilled this score, peeling away the sticky layers of superimposed sentimentality; noticeably in the Andante moderato which had a reserved classicism. Again Mackerras adopted Toscanini’s rigid observation of dynamic markings and metre, taking each movement far more quickly than is customary today. The Allegro non troppo had a wonderful lilting grace and pulsating urgency, with beautifully pointed woodwind, concluding with incisive, almost brutish, timpani playing by Andrew Smith. Another revealing feature throughout this performance was the incredible detail and clarity of the timpani parts that serve as the line-metre of the score: without hearing this anchoring device the work would lose much of its gravitas and pulse.


The Allegro giocoso was taut, tough and gritty with Mackerras making the music sound darker and more intense that we are accustomed to hearing. Mackerras conducted the Allegro energico in one fell swoop and at lightning speed: exactly as it should be done in the Toscanini tradition. Mackerras made the music urgent, brittle and bleak securing stern and brooding playing from a Philharmonia who were truly elevated and exhilarated. I certainly have never heard this movement done with such menacing intensity and with such power since listening to Toscanini’s RFH 1952 Philharmonia recording of the work.

Alex Russell

Further listening:

Mozart:Violin Concerto No. 5; Beethoven Violin Concerto; Wolfgang Schneiderhan (violin); Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Eugen Jochum (conductor): DGG The Originals: Stereo 447 403-2

Brahms: Symphony No.4; Philharmonia Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini (conductor); Royal Festival Hall, 1952. Testament: SBT 3167



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)