Sir Charles Mackerras's way with the Pathétique
forthright musicality with a keen sense of orchestral colour. In the pungent
opening bassoon solos, note the carefully sculpted hairpin dynamics in the
supporting strings. A few pages later, hear the vibrant transparency of the
horn-and-woodwind chords, and the taut, full-bodied punctuating fanfares
from the brass. The second theme sings with poised restraint. The
development is bracing, though the strings and the trombones disagree about
the tempo in their back-and-forth phrases at the climax. The
clarinet's reprise of the second theme is touched with a regretful
melancholy and the coda treads with dignity.
The Allegro con grazia
goes with a nice lift - the five-beat
pattern actually feels like a waltz - and the violins lighten the dotted
patterns without scanting the note values. The central, minor section
maintains the established tempo, with the timpani pulses providing a
distressed undercurrent. A fetching diminuendo
lightens the coda,
and the attack on the winds' final chord is clean.
Many conductors might be content simply to let an orchestra of
Philharmonia calibre play the march for its virtuoso flash. Mackerras takes
some care over characterization as well. The clarinets introduce the main
theme playfully; it sounds smart and trim when the violins take it over.
There's bits of rushing here and there - not, oddly, in the little
running figures, where you'd expect it - but I enjoyed the dynamic,
no-nonsense climaxes, with the brasses' upward scales driving
The very first chord of the Finale
- with the top note in the
violins - sounds tentative, but this improves when the theme
returns. On the theme's extended "tail", the
bassoons' unison descent, the supporting strings execute a precise
, after which Mackerras launches the second theme with a
firm sense of direction. A few untoward accelerations suggest the heat of
performance: at 0:50, for example, which is marked rallentando
after the preceding affrettando
. The indicated stringendo
at 6:28 also feels like too much too soon. The hairpin dynamics
on the trombone chorale are effective, as is the final fade.
The Midsummer Night's Dream
Overture is an unhackneyed
complement to the symphony, and Mackerras leads a characterful performance.
It's good to hear the strings articulating crisply at a reasonable
speed. The second theme flows easily; the cross-rhythmic attacks in the
development are pointed. The music strides proudly, as it should, into the
false ending; the winds transition into the final coda - the real one - with
a lovely wistfulness.
The sound earns points for its suggestion of depth and body around the
winds, as at the start of the Mendelssohn, and of a sense of texture. It
gets demerits for unpleasantly harsh brass outbursts in the
symphony's first movement; those in the march bothered me less.
Considering Sir Charles's high profile as a conductor, his recording
career was spotty. After a handful of lighter-classical programmes
for Philips and EMI - recordings that still stand well - the majors
mostly ignored him. Decca did however bring him in for its Janáček
opera series in the late 1970s. His "Indian summer" in the Telarc
studios, taping cycles of Brahms, Mozart and Gilbert & Sullivan,
found him too casual and laissez-faire a disciplinarian. Let this
Signum disc and its companion issues stand as a more fitting
memorial to him.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and