Seen and Heard Concert
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.
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