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Mackerras Brahms Cycle (IV): Truls Mørk (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, 10 April, 2005 (AR)

Sir Charles Mackerras and the Philharmonia Orchestra opened the concluding concert in their Brahms cycle with an intense and dramatic account of the composer’s Tragic Overture. The string tone was warm and weighty, with the first and second violins divided left and right and the double-basses place across the back of the platform. Mackerras also emphasised the importance of accentuating the woodwind, giving them dramatic punctuation as well as the importance of the timpani which had an incisive clarity and impact very rarely heard before. Mackerras had his pulse on the structure of the score, maintaining a sense of line yet also attaining a sense of expansive elasticity and thus instigating a nervous tension throughout.

Truls Mørk’s refreshingly lithe and lean interpretation of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 made me hear this work anew - the hallmark of true musicianship. Mørk’s consciously detached and seemingly disinterested approach was the antithesis of cellists such as Rostropovich and du Pré - free from emotional excesses, grunts and groans and closer to the reserve of Fournier and Starker and complementing the conductor’s objective interpretation.

Mackerras, - an acknowledged and leading exponent of Czech music - was the ideal partner for Mørk both perceiving this work as more of a symphonic-concerto for orchestra where the soloist is integrated with the soloists of the orchestra, akin to the first violin solos in Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Mackerras conducted – unusually for him - with a baton, and gave this symphonic concerto weight and gravitas, producing lush, rich playing from the Philharmonia. In the opening Allegro Mørk’s entry was so subtle and soignée that he eschewed absolutely any sense of the showy star soloist, isolated from the orchestra: his tone and colour integrated perfectly with the orchestras. Mørk’s playing of the Adagio ma non troppo was stark and yet serene and again beautifully complementing the strident and glowing trombone punctuations. In the closing passages of the concluding Allegro moderato Mørk’s twilit tone and fragile phrasing had a melting reserve, hovering on the horizon and almost fading into nothingness. This is certainly the most musically satisfying account I have heard of this concerto in concert, where soloist, conductor and orchestra shared the same symphonic vision.

Mackerras – conducting baton free again – gave us a Toscanini-like performance of Brahms’ Symphony No.2 in D, Op. 73, unifying a solid sense of line, metre and structure, adhering closely to Brahms’ own interpretation, with what his friend, the English pianist Fanny Davies, stated (extract from Aspects of Brahms Interpretation by Sir Charles Mackerras): “Brahms’s manner of interpretation was free, very elastic and expansive: but the balance was always there – one felt the fundamental rhythms underlying the surface…This expansive elasticity…was one of the chief characteristics of Brahms’s interpretation.” The same could be said of Mackerras’s performance of Brahms.

Mackerras made the Allegro non troppo sound sombre, mellow, far darker than usual, avoiding the cliché that this was Brahms’ ‘Pastoral’ symphony. The opening passages were taken more refreshingly briskly than is often heard and sidestepping the customary lumpen stodginess that can sometimes mar these passages. Again, due to the layout of the orchestra, certain trombone and woodwind details could be heard with extra clarity, revealing orchestra textures that are often obscured. The Adagio non troppo was bleak and brooding, tinged with melancholy yet devoid of cloying sentimentality, whilst the Allegretto was sanguine and buoyant, with the Philharmonia woodwind excelling. The concluding Allegro con spirito was a tour de force, ending with exuberant and exhilaratingly played brass and timpani.

This was a triumphant conclusion to a memorable cycle, much appreciated by a packed Royal Festival Hall; a great pity it was not recorded for posterity – but at least we do have Toscanini’s RFH cycle with the Philharmonia available in respectable sound.

Alex Russell

Further listening:

Dvorak: Cello Concerto (with Bloch and Bruch); Pierre Fournier (cello), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, George Szell (conductor): Deutsche Grammophon: DGG CD: 29155

Brahms: Second Symphony, Tragic Overture, etc; 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)