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Mackerras Brahms Cycle (I): Till Fellner (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, 17th March, 2005 (AR)

I thought Myung-Whun Chung’s recent LSO Barbican Brahms First Symphony was a paradigm performance and hard – if not impossible - to equal: quite simply, this Mackerras performance surpassed it, sounding strikingly similar to Arturo Toscanini’s outstanding Philharmonia Royal Festival Hall 1952 reading (available on a three disc Testament set).

Rather unusually for this symphony (at least amongst recent performances), the strings were divided antiphonally, with the double-basses placed along the back of the platform and the timpani on the far right: the balance was perfect and one could hear the continuously throbbing bass line throughout. The opening Un poco sostenuto was taken swiftly, at the same fleeting pace as Toscanini’s but never sounding slick or rushed. Mackerras’ incisive, baton-free conducting was taut, urgent and rock steady, maintaining absolute control over the structure whilst also posessed of an agile, expressive fluidity. The woodwind and horns blended in beautifully with the sumptuous strings, with Mackerras sensitively and incisively utilising his forces like a chamber ensemble, producing transparent orchestral textures, yet still managing to sound tough and grainy.

In the Andante Mackerras kept up the sense of urgency and never sagged as is often the case here. The Philharmonia woodwind excelled themselves, shining throughout the melodic lines. The Allegretto was dark and brooding with Mackerras encouraging his pizzicato strings to make eerie stabbing sounds. The Allegro non troppo was a tour de force, expertly executed and gradually building up the tension, climaxing with glowing brass at the conclusion. Timpanist Andrew Smith seemed to make this movement his own, playing with his customary panache.

The suave Viennese pianist Till Fellner gave a powerfully direct, no-nonsense interpretation of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat. The opening horn solo was beautifully executed by Laurence Davies and set the tone for this perfectly played performance from a Philharmonia who were on top form.

Fellner’s atheletic playing of the Allegro non troppo was in the grand manner: shuddering, stark, strong-headed and fleeting. His assertive toughness of playing contrasted with his eloquent lightness of touch. Fellner’s playing of the Allegro appassionato was dark, stern, angular and intense and again conductor and orchestra complimented their soloist with great attack and aplomb.

Fellner’s sensitive playing of the Andante was sparkling and tranquil, giving the sensation of sublime alienation, with the cello solo, sensitively played by David Watkin, sounding appropriately withdrawn, distant and melancholic. The concluding Allegretto grazioso was lithe, agile and bouyantly humorous, with Fellner making the notes dance. Throughout, Mackerras and the Philharmonia’s muscular support matched Fellner’s monumental approach. The audience were silent throughout, as if hypnotised by the magical combination of soloist, conductor and orchestra, even if it seemed shamefully unappreciative of both Fellner’s mesmerising interpretation and the conductor and orchestra’s superlative support.

Alex Russell

Further listening:

Brahms: Piano Concerto No.2; Symphony No.1; Vladimir Horowitz (piano), NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini (conductor); New York, 6th May 1940. Naxos Historical: 8.110805-6.

Brahms: Symphony No.1; 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)