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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Wagner, Mendelssohn, Schubert: Philharmonia Orchestra, cond. Sir Charles Mackerras; Alina Ibragimova (violin) Barbican Hall London. 10.6 2006 (GD)

Sir Charles, in a few introductory comments to the audience, pointed out that the original orchestra’s founder Walter Legge, who would be one hundred years old today, had he lived, would have appreciated an old fashioned piece of programming like that offered tonight. However, more traditional conductors such as Von Bulow and Hans Richter would have given the original’ Dresden’ Tannhäuser overture, rather than the 1861 Paris version with the Venusberg music as played tonight.

Mackerras conducted a straight forward, relatively quick performance of the overture. The entrance of the trombones, leading the main pilgrims’ procession theme, sounded quite loud in contrast to the solemn gravitas characteristic of more teutonic performances. Mackerras was, as usual, exacting in terms of rhythmic articulation and dynamic gradation, although he was let down frequently by messy ensemble particularly in the woodwind and brass counterpoint. At tutti moments in the main overture and the ‘bacchanale’ the woodwind were not audible as they should be. Also, in the ‘bacchanale’, the timpani lacked the required attack and were out of tune at several points. The sustained (Tristan like) ‘love music’ which concludes the ‘Venusberg music’ lacked a true pp, especially in the shimmering string writing. Some of these shortcomings in orchestral balance were due, in part, to the rather recessed acoustic of the QEH. It was not clear to me why Mackerras did not divide his first and second violins in this piece (and the Mendelssohn) as he did in the Schubert symphony. There are many moments of antiphonal effect (especially in the Venusberg music) where divisi strings are a sine qua non.

Alina Ibragimova replaced Janine Jansen, who was indisposed, at very short notice, and programmed the famous Mendelssohn Violin concerto instead of the Mozart (216), which had originally been scheduled. There used to be a saying that the best violinists came from the triangle of territory within the parameters of Riga, Odessa and Moscow; and when one thinks of violinists like Oistrakh (pere et fils), Gluzman, Kremer, Milstein, Mullova, and many others there is surely some truth in that wisdom. On tonight's showing Ibragimova is more than worthy to stand in the company these illustrious names. She is barely twenty and Moscow trained. This Moscow heritage in violin training was evident immediately with her playing of the main first movement’s lyrical theme which intoned a minimum of vibrato over a sustained and pure toned cantilena. Ibragimova demonstrated a rare quality in this movement and the whole concerto; the ability to sustain and contour the whole line of thematic development within the structure of the whole. Previously I had always valued the old 1945 New York, Milstein recording with Bruno Walter. But Ibragimova surpassed Milstein in terms of purity of tone and unaffected phrasing. Ibragimova is a tall, elegant young woman whose rather graceful gestures when playing flow completely in line with the music, with no hint of the histrionic or gesture for the sake of it. She played the andante as a true andante eschewing all the dragging and cloying sentimentality one frequently hears in this work. The brilliant last movement Allegro molto vivace was played with an emphasis on the ‘vivace’ at an exceedingly swift tempo. It was amazing to hear every nuance, at this tempo so convincingly articulated without ever seeming rushed or virtuosic in the showy sense.With this violinist one never felt the immense difficulty of the writing, it always sounded easeful and natural in keeping with the verdant nature of Mendelssohn’s finest concerto.

Mackerras is one of the most accommodating and helpful of concerto conductors, and one was always aware that this was Ibragimova’s interpretation in terms of tempi, dynamics and phrasing. Mackerras was particularly careful to bring out the delicate woodwind/string counterpoint at the beginning of the recapitulation of the first movement and elsewhere. And throughout one felt a sense of dialogue between conductor and soloist, as opposed to mere accompaniment. Tonight’s concert was being recorded for immediate down-load. I shall certainly be down-loading this item.

Schubert composed the ‘Great C major’ symphony in the last anguished years of his short life, together with the ‘Great’ C major Quintet, the last piano sonatas, song cycles and the G major quartet. In many ways this symphony is a defining work in the symphonic canon. It is not that it is intrinsically ‘greater’ than say a late Mozart, or Beethoven symphony, it is more to do with the way it incorporates important elements from the earlier Viennese masters and looks forward to Schumann, Brahms, Berlioz ,Mendelssohn, Bruckner, and even Alban Berg and Kreneck. An enormously important transitional work. As such it presents a multitude of problems for performers. Even the legendary status of recorded performances from the likes of Furtwängler, Toscanini, Bohm, Krips, Klemperer et al do not solve all the work’s stylistic, idiomatic interpretive problems.

The sustained way in which Mackerras built up the lead-in from ‘andante’ introduction to the exposition ‘allegro ma non troppo’, with tremendous rhythmic charge reminded me of Toscanini. Mackerras here delineated the extended development section with a sure sense of architectural coherence (a minimum of rubato effects). Schubert’s quite innovative writing for trombones from ff to pianissimo was fully realized, as was the triumphant recapitulation climax in the dominant G major. Here, as noted previously, more rhythmic accuracy and attack was needed in the timpani part. I imagined how vividly this important timpani part would have been inflected by the original Philharmonia’s veteran timpanist James Bradshaw!

The second (march-like) movement in A minor was taken at a true Andante con moto. Like Toscanini, Mackerras, at times, conducted Alla breve to emphasise the structural two minim beat. The effect of the terrifying central climax, the following dramatic pause and the contrasting lyricism of the A major refrain were fully realized here, in a way that is possibly only achievable in a live performance. Mackerras made sure that upward triplet figure in the timpani, before each sforzato accent on full orchestra was correctly played. Another similarity here to Toscanini, who took great pains to play this detail correctly. It is an important detail ignored, or smudged by so many conductors.

The multi-faceted scherzo was given great rhythmic bite, especially in the lower strings. Tovey described the wonderful trio section of this movement as a ‘huge single melody in binary form’. Mackerras delighted in the full toned landler theme on woodwind and brass. The occasional rustic, coarse quality he encouraged here was totally in keeping with the music. One would have thought that Mackerras had lived in Vienna all his life!

The gigantic finale presents the most problems for conductors and orchestras; how much tempo variation to adopt? How to balance the grotesque, obsessive rhythmic quality with the Schubert’s endless flow of melody? When Mendelssohn rehearsed the piece in London in 1844, the players derided the piece as unplayable and walked off! Mackerras adopted virtually a single swift tempo and managed to sustain it to the end. Particular emphasis was given to the four premonitory repeated notes of the horn stretching itself ad infinitum. The corresponding, almost manic, repetition of this figure accelerated in the strings projected themselves as a seemingly endless series of rounds (a musical device Berlioz was later to use in the ‘Witches Sabbath’ of his “Symphonie Fantastique’). And it is this frantic quality that Mackerras emphasised straight through to the cataclysmic coda which is both triumphant (a celebration of C major) and grotesquely disturbing in its relentless repetitions and abrubt underlying shifts into remote minor keys. Tovey, with his usual perception, wrote of Schubert speaking here of ‘things which overwhelm’, revealing a cosmic’ vastness’ (maybe a terror in the face of death) which Schubert was’ not afraid’ to arouse in this strange music.

Mackerras held on to the finale blazing C major chord, ignoring Schubert’s autograph score where no fermata is marked. Also the de-crescendo marked in this chord was not followed. But these are more textual points and really correspond to the style of performance. Klemperer’s massively bleak recording with the ‘old’ Philharmonia is the only one I know which successfully incorporates the de-crescendo ending. The omission tonight of the repeats in the first, third and last movements was understandable in a relatively long programme on a hot June evening. Schumann’s ‘heavenly lengths’ ensure that this symphony can make its powerful effect without repeats, interesting as the inclusion is. The slight roughness in ensemble, in the last movement, although regrettable, did not seriously impede Mackerras’s compelling realization of Schubert’s vision.

Overall, and despite some reservations, a memorable concert. Made all the more memorable by the introduction (for me) of Alina Ibragimova, whom I look forward to hearing in the Brahms and Berg violin concertos, and much else.

Geoff Diggines


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