Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia/Mackerras @ Royal Festival Hall, London

24 June 2007

Across the river at the Royal Opera House, Charles Mackerras’ conducting in Káťa Kabanová is resplendent and vital.

Mackerras is, of course, one of the great Janacek interpreters and on Sunday evening he delivered an edgy, raw and thrilling Sinfonietta to a packed Royal Festival Hall. To accompany, Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture and Mozart’s Piano Concerto 25 were sensible, complementary choices.

The least successful of the three was, for me, the Wagner. The conducting itself was lively and spontaneous and the Philharmonia Orchestra provided luxurious sound, with divided violins on top form and a fiery glare to the trumpets’ tone. The hall’s acoustic did, however, swallow Wagner’s contrapuntal lines – so vital to bring out for the work to avoid overbearing pomposity – and the balance was very thick and the dynamic frequently very loud.

It was in Mozart’s concerto that I relaxed into my seat. The work was composed in 1786, the time of The Marriage of Figaro, and it brims with operatic character, colour and ebullience. In the Andante, we can almost hear the Countess; in the Allegretto, Figaro. Unafraid to withdraw the Andante‘s tempo and propel that final movement to the verge of raucousness, Mackerras provided the most sensitive and imaginative musical heartbeat. The woodwind were sublime. After Ivor Bolton’s uneventful conducting of Don Giovanni in Covent Garden recently, it was especially welcome.

Mitsuko Uchida knows her Mozart and she knows how to deliver it. In the Allegro maestoso‘s cadenza, her arrogant opening was immediately withdrawn to the most intimate introspection, replete with suggestive trilling. In the Andante, her caressed rhythms floated above the Philharmonia’s lengthily drawn lines. Uchida’s technique tired a couple of times, and the work’s final stretch perhaps could have been tighter, but this was undeniably exciting playing.

And then the Sinfonietta. The Philharmonia are no Vienna Philharmonic (Mackerras’ 1981 reading with the latter orchestra is still a benchmark) and the Festival Hall’s acoustic still leaves musicians nowhere to hide – any blips, pitch veers and instrument failures were clear for all to see – but I absolutely adored the reading. Janacek’s work is a masterpiece of scoring and melodic exuberance. The sinewy woodwind, slammed percussion and tremendous brass fanfares still take the breath away, and Charles Mackerras’ reading was electric.

The extra line of trumpets were wonderfully characterful, encountering no pitching problems and sticking firmly together throughout the idiosyncratic writing. The Andante was all swirling woodwind and strings, and exciting antiphonies between normal and extra brass sections, backed by the most luminous violin tone. Tempi were often brisk, but Mackerras held off the Andante con moto‘s crescendo for as long as possible, allowing the sinister trombone chords to ratchet up the tension to breaking point. There was real, real weight behind the final, frantically played orchestral tuttis. The whole wasn’t technically perfect but, put simply, it had guts.

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