Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia Orchestra/Mackerras @ Royal Festival Hall, London

3 April 2008

Charles Mackerras rolls back the years with a concert of energetic Strauss and beguiling Beethoven; it’s just a pity that the concert concluded with such a dreary symphony.

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

While it would be something of an exaggeration to say that Charles Mackerras bounded onto the platform at last Thursday’s concert, the 83-year-old conductor is still a sprightly presence on the podium and shows absolutely no signs of retiring.

For that we should be eternally grateful as it’s hard to imagine the musical world without him. Whilst many conductors specialise in certain composers or genres, Mackerras is equally at home with Sullivan as he is with Janacek, Verdi, Strauss, Mozart the list is endless. I can’t think of a single work or composer I wouldn’t like to hear him conduct. Whilst others might consider winding down, he is doing exactly the opposite and is enjoying the most exhilarating Indian summer of what has been an astonishing career.

He’s back at Covent Garden for Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni later this year whilst his recording of Mozart symphonies is simply astonishing and he has just recorded Cosi fan tutte and Salome for Chandos. I think that says it all.

In the first of three Spring concerts with the Philharmonia, which he first conducted 52 years ago, we were treated to a cheekily youthful performance of Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Schumann’s Third Symphony, the Rhenish.

Strauss’ tone poem was written in 1895 and paints a wonderfully evocative picture of Till the subversive lovable rogue of German legend. Whether Mackerras identifies with him or not is unclear, yet the performance was taken at an almost break-neck speed, with effervescent playing from start to finish, which brilliantly transported the audience to a primary-coloured land of fairy-tale.

We were then treated to a beguiling performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto where the exceptionally gifted young German pianist Lars Vogt proved why he is in such demand. Unusually for a concerto, the soloist ushers in the first movement; from those first hushed chords it was clear that this was going to be an exceptional performance and Vogt didn’t disappoint. His phrasing was exemplary his rapport with the orchestra and conductor evident in every bar and his playing of the cadenzas displayed a bravura that was totally at one with the spirit of the work. Needless to say Mackerras brought a wealth of period-practice to the piece (incidentally the double basses were arranged in a line at the back of the orchestra behind the horns) and the Rondo finale was infused with an intoxicating rhythmic vitality.

After the interval, Schumann’s Third Symphony proved to be an anti-climax. Most famous for his lieder, Schumann’s skills as a symphonist are questionable to say the least. Lumbered with bland orchestration, plodding thematic ideas and a lack of forward propulsion the Rhenish failed to register anywhere on the symphonic Richter-scale. The playing was fine but I was longing to hear Mackerras and the orchestra in a work more worthy of their talents.

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