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Mackerras Brahms Cycle (II) Paul Lewis (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, 22nd March, 2005 (AR)

Mackerras and the Philharmonia’s second instalment of their current Brahms Symphony Cycle began with the composer’s much neglected and underrated Serenade No.2 in A, Op.16. The Allegro moderato sounded so spacious, fresh, luminous and opulent with Mackerras seemingly letting the movement flow organically and enticing exquisitely poised woodwind playing from a reduced Philharmonia Orchestra (there are no violins here). In the Scherzo the horns were appropriately raucous and rhythms were jagged and buoyant with Mackerras’ brisk tempi making the music sound so Springy, joyous and exhilarating.

Moods shifted to darker hues in the Adagio non troppo with the Philharmonia taking on a brooding and mellow pathos, producing stark sonorities edged on by the conductor’s sensitive phrasing from his baton-free hands. There was something uncannily spooky and unsettling about the Quasi menuetto with Mackerras adopting a deliberately broad and measured tempi, performed slower than usual, but never allowing the musical line to slacken or break: I have never heard this movement sound so sinister and bleak.

The concluding Rondo (Allegro) was wonderfully buoyant with horns sounding exuberantly gruff and raucous accompanied by Keith Bragg’s perfectly pointed perky piccolo. What seems to have let this, otherwise superlative and sensitive account, down was the basic lack of weight from the strings. Although reduced in size, the strings should still have had much more gravitas and weight (possibly due to the layout with double basses strewn along the back of the platform)

Many people admire pianist Paul Lewis – but I am not one of them and found his playing of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K488 brittle and course-grained. Throughout all three movements, Lewis played with the same clangourous heaviness of tone; his phrasing was crudely clipped and the notes were snatched. It was simply a question of style: Lewis lacked sparkle, delicacy, and grace and thus the exquisite poetry of the music was totally lacking – it was all purely mechanical monochrome note-spinning. Lewis’ lack-lustre playing has none of the refinement and frivolity so superbly realised by Annie Fischer and Clara Haskil in this concerto: could it be that women are more instinctive interpreters of Mozart than men?

The concert concluded with a superbly played and conducted account of Brahms’ Third Symphony in F Op. 90. The Third is arguably Brahms’ most difficult symphony to conduct – and get right - and Toscanini and Karajan stated that they had encountered great problems conducting this dense and complex score. Yet Mackerras had perfect control over tempi and structure from beginning to end. However, what Mackerras did encounter was a problem of balance in the Allegro con brio – with divided strings, as in his recent performance of the First Symphony and basses placed along the back of the platform. In the first movement the cellos and double basses sounded too etiolated in the important cross-rhythm exchanges with the violins and violas. Lacking a weighty bass-line here is like trying to build an edifice on a weak quicksand foundation. To hear how the cellos and double basses should sound listen to Otto Klemperer’s 1962 ‘live’ Philadelphia Orchestra account. To make up for the lack of weight in the strings in general, the horns, woodwind and timpani had great intensity and played with panache and incisive bite and Mackerras’ conducting was taut, urgent and incisive throughout.

The Andante had a simple serenity and about it with the Philharmonia playing in a sensitive mellow mood with a melancholic lyricism. In contrast, the Poco allegretto had a lilting grace and slumbering delicacy as if Brahms was trying to rock us gently to sleep: here Mackerras perfectly judged the tempi and the music simply flowed naturally devoid of mannerisms. The Allegro was wonderfully jagged, angular and muscular with Mackerras urging the horns and timpani to play with great gusto and dramatically contrasted with the murmuring lyrical moments. The closing passages were perfectly conducted and played, with the music softly blending into nothingness: this is one of the most difficult closing passages of any symphony to pull off – and conductor and orchestra mastered it to perfection.

Alex Russell

Further listening:

Brahms: Serenade No.2, NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini (conductor), NBC Broadcast 1942, RCA Victor Gold Seal, GD: 60277

Mozart: Piano Concerto No.23, Annie Fischer (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult (conductor), Seraphim EMI: 5-68529 2

Brahms: Third Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, 27th October, 1962. Academy of Music, Philadelphia, Navikiese CD



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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)