Seen and Heard Concert
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
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.
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,