Philharmonia Orchestra/ Mackerras, Royal Festival Hall
Friday 13 February 2009
Elgar knew and enjoyed his Mozart with the rest of us but at the start of this well-balanced programme it was almost as if a little of his pomp and circumstance – or perhaps I should say “nobilmente” - had rubbed off on Sir Charles Mackerras’ account of Wolfgang Amadeus’ Overture in the Italian Style or Symphony No.32.
By Sir Charles’ exacting standards it seemed overly well upholstered with four valve horns, double woodwind, and a large body of strings. But we should never doubt Mackerras on points of style, for that, it seems, is precisely what Mozart ordered to reflect its festive nature.
I’m curious about the valve horns, though. When Mackerras switched to natural horns (and trumpets) for Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor was it primarily an issue of colour (the snarl of stopped notes does lend an ominous minor key overtone to the music) or balance? Probably both. For the symphony, brilliance and amplitude are key, but in the concerto a darker alchemy between orchestra and soloist is required. That soloist was the undoubtedly talented Lise de la Salle, though she didn’t turn out to be quite the diva promised by the furtive, highly operatic, opening of the piece.
In pianistic terms, her “coloratura” was poised, rhythmic, and very correct. Her playing was indeed text-book. But for me it didn’t reveal much beyond proficiency. Given the turbulent nature of the piece, wasn’t it all rather bloodless? Anonymous, certainly. It also struck me as curious how she seemed to be resisting even an impression of legato in the central Romanza. All Mozart’s slow movements are sensuous – that’s who he was. I can imagine him advising this young lady to loosen up a little.
The overriding impression of Mackerras’ robust account of Elgar’s First Symphony was urgency. This is a symphony about old values caught in the winds of change. The great “nobilmente” theme undergoes extraordinary transformation before finally achieving its exultant apotheosis. Mackerras and the Philharmonia caught its extreme restlessness and agitation, the intricacy of its counterpoint and multiple string divisions confidently negotiated. Like everything Mackerras does, his intuitive sense of tempo-rubato stood him in good stead. The playing was wholehearted with super-ripe brass rasping home on the back of bass trombone and tuba, but there was a magical inwardness, too, as the slow movement regressed deeper into itself, the glimmer of solo clarinet in the very last bar tinged with great sadness.
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