Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia/Mackerras @ Royal Festival Hall, London

13 December 2009

Charles Mackerras was all beaming smiles as he made his way to the podium for this Sunday afternoon concert.

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

His mood was evidently infectious as the Philharmonia gave a gloriously robust rendition of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony under his mercurial baton. Fleet of foot, yet suffused with a sense of bucolic reverie, this was everything and more one could wish for from a performance of this symphony.

There can be few conductors, if any, who have such an innate sense of how to make Beethoven work as Sir Charles Mackerras knows how to. About to turn 85 next year, he seems to be showing no signs of letting up, and he conducted with a sense of tempestuousness, drive, vigour and joie de vivre that eludes many conductors half his age. The first movement, after a wonderfully lilting introduction, had tremendous guts and drive and at times the members of the Philharmonia seemed to have difficulty keeping up, but that simply added to the wonderful vitality of the performance.

Mackerras conjured up a viscerally violent storm, which gave way to a gloriously lyrical final movement that was full of colour one could almost smell the damp flora and fauna as the sun shone once more through the clouds. Having heard Mackerras conduct the Pastoral with the OAE last year, if anything I thought the Philharmonia were even better. Vibrato was kept to a minimum and although modern horns were deployed, valveless trumpets lent a wonderful sense of rawness to the proceedings. It was as uplifting a performance as you could wish for.

By comparison the 20 minutes or so of extracts from Hnsel und Gretel left me feeling slightly short-changed. Rebecca Bottone and Caitlin Hulcup were an effective pair of children, although Ive heard creamier sopranos tackle the role of Gretel than Bottone, but Hilcup proved to be a winning Hnsel and an even better Sandman her singing of the Sandmans sing was the vocal highlight of the afternoon. It was good to see so many children in the audience, especially as they were impeccably behaved. Despite a couple of reservations this concert was a great way to usher in the festive spirit.

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