Seen and Heard Concert
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
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.
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.