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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Mozart and Elgar: Mitsuko Uchida, piano, Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, 16 June, 2005 (AR)



The concert opened with an announcement by Sir Charles Mackerras of the death of Carlo Maria Giulini who died on the 14th of June. He praised Guilini for his great work with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the 1950’s and 60’s and said that the works in the programme were uncannily apt for the occasion: “two dark works by Mozart – the Adagio & Fugue and the E minor concerto and the Elgar Second Symphony in which the second movement is dedicated to the memory of a great man.” 


Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K.546 was intense and grainy textured. The Adagio had a nervously chilling quality about it, with Mackerras securing brooding playing and jagged rhythms. In the Fugue, the grunting cellos and double basses had a wonderfully tough, gritty earthiness pointedly contrasted with the appropriately strident violins. This dark and dramatic account reminded me of Otto Klemperer’s Philharmonia recording of the work.


Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K.466 was given such a refreshingly direct no frills performance that I forgot about the performers themselves: this is the highest compliment you can pay a musician - not thinking about them or being aware that they are there. Uchida and Mackerras are great Mozartians and they prepared this performance to utter perfection yet still giving the illusion of on-the-spot spontaneity. Uchida is in a class of her own in that her playing gives the impression of being the composer’s own hands at work: she is Mozart. Her playing of the Allegro amazed me for its extreme range from the agile and the delicate to the angry and the dissonant yet all had a subtle reserve; her graceful and buoyant sense of melodic line was matched by Mackerras flexible and lithe conducting and the Philharmonia’s alert and sprightly, stylish playing. A notable feature here was the use of hard sticks and kettledrum which added to the dark militaristic tone of the movement.


After removing her silk robe after the heat she generated in the first movement Uchida played the Romanza with a cool and tranquil radiance, floating her phrases with effortless ease. A striking feature of the concluding Rondo: Allegro assai was the agitated sound of the grinding cellos carrying Uchida along with an adrenalin surging energy, again having a perfect syncopation with the orchestra. The Philharmonia’s sound world mirrored her own throughout.


Mackerras not only excels in Mozart but is also one of our finest interpreters of Edward Elgar. His performance of Elgar’s Symphony No.2 in E flat Major, Op.63 was very close to the late Giuseppe Sinopoli’s radical conception, stripping the score of the inflated grandiose pomposity so often heard in Barbirolli’s grunting accounts. From beginning to end this was a beautifully prepared and played performance with incredible orchestral details shining through, even in climaxes.


The Allegro vivace e nobilmente was very broad and measured with Mackerras having absolute control over the metre of the music. His sense of line and phrasing had grace, flexibility and buoyancy whilst his sense of dynamics was wide ranging, contrasting between the quietest of playing to the extremes of the percussion yet without sounding bombastic.


The Larghetto was by far the most moving I have heard – and I have heard many performances. This was deeply felt but without ever sounding smaltzy as it did with Barbirolli or Solti. Mackerras’ attention to orchestral detail is extraordinary: the heartbeat throb of the timpani and bass drum taps came through with a haunting menace. The conductor toned down the strings, thus giving them an added poignancy following the tried and tested rule that less is more: the music seemed to bathe in a golden aura mesmerising the audience into stunned silence.


The Rondo: Presto can often sound like brass band music but under Mackerras’ sensitive baton he made the orchestral textures sound chamber like and translucent; the brass and percussion were incisive yet wonderfully light and breezy. Again the contrasts in dynamic range were wide, increasing the diversity of emotions and sound sensations. The concluding Moderrato e maestoso can often come across as a protracted, pompous march but here it sounded more akin to the outer movements of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony -fragmenting, imploding, exploding marches. The music sounded far more dark and urgent than usual, with far greater contrasts being painted between different passages. The closing bars melted movingly into nothing: it did not feel like ‘the end’ but a new beginning. This was an extraordinarily fresh, radical interpretation of a work which is all too often wrongly seen as a backward-looking work of the Edwardian era.



Alex Russell



Further listening: 


Mozart: Adagio & Fugue, K 546 in C minor; Symphoies 25, 29,  31, Overture; Cosi Fan Tutti; Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer (conductor): EMI Classics: 5 67331 2.


Mozart: Piano Concertos 20 & 21; Mitsuko Uchida (piano), English Chamber Orchestra, Jeffrey Tate (conductor): Philips: 416381.


Elgar: Symphony No. 2 & No.1; In the South (Alassio) Overture, Pomp & Circumstance Military Marches Nos. 1 & 4: Philharmonia Orchestra, Giuseppe Sinopoli (conductor): Deutsche Grammophon 2 CD (DDD) 453 103 – 2.





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