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Sir Charles Mackerras's 80th Birthday Gala Concert: Wagner, Mozart, Schubert: Alfred Brendel (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor): Queen Elizabeth Hall: 20.06.2006. (AR)


Sir Charles Mackerras’ 80th Birthday Concert opened with a briskly paced performance of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser Prelude & Venusberg Music. What let this performance down was the rather rough and lack-lustre playing of the Philharmonia Orchestra, further impeded by the muffled QEH acoustic. The trombones often came across as coarse grained and far too loud whilst the strings were harsh and strident, lacking the sensuous sheen required of them. Unfortunately the eight double basses spanning the rear of the stage were barely – if ever – audible and might as well have not been there.


In the camp bacchanale the woodwind were far too recessed and were further drowned out by the hard and metallic percussion that merely sounded noisy rather than brilliant, with the cymbals, tambourine and castanets lacking the sense of burlesque so essential here. Timpanist Andrew Smith sounded unusually reserved and was further restrained by being placed too far backstage, behind the wall of double basses.


Due to the restricted size of the stage the all important ‘spaces’ between instruments could not be heard, neither could we hear the ‘silences’ between the notes: orchestral textures were blurred and congested and all was in your face. However, in the quieter closing passages things improved somewhat with the eloquent violas and woodwind suddenly taking on a serene sensitivity – if only all too briefly and late.


The legendary Alfred Brendel’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27, K. 595 was pure poetry from beginning to end. Brendel made the work sound newly minted, freshly composed as if Mozart himself was there improvising on the spot with rococo ornamentations of his own. This was the closest I could possibly imagine to what Mozart might have sounded like. With Brendel nothing ever sounded over rehearsed or planned ahead, and there was a risky and playful element giving the sensation of leaving things to chance.


In the Allegro Brendel played like an agile angel, hovering and fleeting with his fingers like fluttering wings barely touching the keyboard whilst the Larghetto had an eloquent simplicity combined with an extraordinary range of tone, colour and mood, beyond sounding merely like notes for notes sake. The concluding allegro had a breathtaking flexibility with Brendel sounding like a child at play, as if extemporising - such is the spirit and sign of true genius – making it all look so easy.


Whilst Mackerras’ accompaniment was sensitive and perfectly paced and integrated with the soloist, the Philharmonia strings sounded a little anaemic and wiry, whilst the four cellos and two double basses simply lacked presence and weight and unbalanced the orchestral textures. The woodwind again seemed to be rather too recessed and maybe should have been more forward and even elevated on a platform to give better projection (as Klemperer had done in his performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio at Covent Garden in 1961).



Robert Schumann’s poetic description of Franz Schubert’s Great C major Symphony as being of ‘heavenly length’ seemed for once inaccurate under Mackerras’ rhythmically taut and brisk performance, where all four movements were perfectly integrated and had a continuous pulsating projection that made the work feel like one mammoth movement. This was as close to a paragon of an interpretation as one is ever likely to get.


Here the expanded Philharmonia – now with antiphonal violins and doubled woodwind transformed themselves and played with much more verve, body and incisiveness. The only thing that let down this performance was again the placing of the eight double basses along the back of the platform, thus robbing them of projection and presence, making them barely audible throughout. Part of the blame lies in the cramped QEH, which was never really designed to take such large-scale symphonies.


In the first movement Mackerras made the opening andante flow organically and seamlessly into the allegro ma non troppo: too often this can sound sectionalised with the andante often sounding too slow and ponderous. Here there was a strong sense of forward drive and musical development with Mackerras securing tautly measured tempi and buoyant rhythms, making the music dance with swirling sound. Mackerras made the music sound really weighty whilst also securing translucent orchestral textures allowing all the woodwind details to shine through.


The Andante con motto – like a menacing march - had a demonic drive with Mackerras building up to the climax with rock steady assurance and dramatic intensity with horns and trombones shining through with a glowing force: I have only heard Toscanini bring such terror and intensity to this shattering climax.


The sombre passages for solo horn and woodwind were well projected and played with style. The Scherzo: Allegro vivace had the appropriate pulsating dance rhythms and swaggering, lilting grace with the tough strings possessed of a rugged and weighty earthiness.


The concluding Allegro vivace had real verve and attack with Mackerras thrusting the music ahead into a swirling vortex of sound, the music recalling the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with its wild and explosive rhythms. The dissonant closing passages, with stabbing strings and punctuated brass had a menacing, sinister sensation that again was reminiscent of Toscanini. It was regrettable throughout that the timpani were placed so far back stage and were barely audible, but one hopes they will be heard much more clearly in the recording that was made of this enlightening and exhilarating concert.



Alex Russell


Further listening:


Wagner: Tannhaüser Venusberg Music; R. Strauss: Don Juan, Op. 20; Till Eulenspiegel, Op. 28; Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24 Philharmonia Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan (conductor): Testament SBT 1383. 


Wagner: Tannhäuser Prelude, etc. Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer (conductor): EMI Classics: 67894-2.


Mozart: Piano Concertos No. 27, 25; Friedrich Gulda (piano), Wiener Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado (conductor): Deutsche Grammophon: Galleria 419 479–2.


Schubert: Symphony No. 9, ‘The Great’, Symphony No. 8 ‘Unfinished’; Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer (conductor): EMI: 5 67338-2.







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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)