Tuesday 10 February 2009

Festival 2006, Part II - The Mackerras Beethoven Cycle

Continuing my series rounding up the festival immediately preceding the founding of this website. I originally wrote the quoted comments on Naim Audio forum.

When the programme was announced it was a dream come true, for it contained my one fantasy piece of programming, namely Sir Charles Mackerras conducting all nine of Beethoven's symphonies, something I'd never have thought would be practical in a festival. Better yet, it was to feature, predominantly, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, with whom Mackerras has formed a very special bond.

Of course, outgoing director gave it a special twist and programmed each of the symphonies in a standalone concert at a flat rate ticket price. The only nod to the demands of so many concerts on the octogenarian conductor was that they were done out of order (as a lot of the bigger works come close together). Far from being a disadvantage, this actually provided an opportunity for him to display some fascinating links. Indeed, when the results were broadcast and issued on CD in numerical order, I found it a little disappointing.

The Beethoven concerts took place at 5.30pm, with a Brucker cycle (running with different orchestras and conductors in order) at 9.30 and a 'masterworks' series sandwiched in between. I gather this made things 'interesting' logistically, particularly when there were several large ensembles on the same evening (that first night had the SCO, the RSNO and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra), if anyone has any experiences behind the scenes, we'd love to hear them in the comments.

The cycle kicked off on Tuesday 15th August with the Erioca (with a couple of additions in [] to clarify certain points):

I found the Beethoven fascinating. In many ways it was very different from his CD account [with the RLPO on EMI]. A little slower and, in a funny way, with a lot of the orchestral contrast that I raved about with the Colin Davis cycle [how fresh and new he made it sound, by bringing out textures in the orchestration I'd not noticed before]. Indeed, I think part of this contrast was down to Davis's use of the Dresdeners (superior to Mackerras's RLPO on cd), I think it fair to say that the SCO are in a leauge above what the RLPO managed too - though, again, I think the imperfect, in places, accoustic of the usher hall, makes this a not entirely universal assessment.

I find the finale of the work doesn't always hang together but I was bowled over from start to finish. I'm so glad they're broadcasting these since this combination promises to be one of the most convincing I have heard.

I also feel the 'one work concert' idea works rather well.

Mackerras and the SCO were back in the Usher Hall just two days later for the second symphony:

Well, Sir Charles started as he meant to go on. For the last two days I've had the closing chords of Bruckner 1 ringing in my head (very unfairly given 3 stars in the Scotsman - it seems he had no real complaint with the reading but rather the work itself). Had I not been to that, it would certainly have been the Eroica instead. Now I can't get rid of Beethoven's second (and what a wonderful problem that is to have).

Interestingly, as I rode the bus from work to the Usher Hall, I couldn't for the life of me recall the work at all (and it isn't one of Beethoven's most memorably tuneful). However, the moment it started I knew exactly where I was and I knew what movements were coming next (for some reason I always have this problem with this work). However, in one of the hallmarks that separates good conducting in Beethoven from bad, the notes never seemed to fall exactly when I expected - Mackerras holds this sort of drama better than any in this repertiore.

The orchestral colour was had the same variety that I mentioned in my review of the third. Interestingly, and this struck me in the third too, Mackerras was a little more understated on the podium than I have seen him. Perhaps this is a sign of just how well he knows the SCO and vice versa.

However, the excitement with which they played this work made it all the more disappointing that the hall was much less full than on Tuesday. Beethoven's less favoured works seem to suffer in this regard and, as Mackerras shows, unfairly so.

The final instalment of the first week came on Saturday 19th August with the 5th symphony:

Mackerras's CD Beethoven cycle is my favourite, but, if I am being brutally honest, its weak link (to the exten it has one) is the first movement of the 5th which doesn't quite surprise in the way the rest does and has rather too steady a tempo. Not so last night. Sir Charles gave a magnificently powerful reading with some absolutely lovely playing throughout. This was the sort of 5th where the whole finale had you on the edge of your seat, jaw dropped and mouth dry. It is the same kind of exhilaration I had when I first heard the 7th from Harding. I put that experience down to the novelty of the symphony but that cannot have been the case here - suffice to say I now cannot wait until next Saturday's 7th.

Another thing that struck me is how much you get from a cycle (even if not in order). You could hear that the 5th in some ways mixes sucessful elements from 3rd and 2nd (in many ways, the opening bars are a progression from he eroica, yet it shares the same sort of codas that mark out the ends of outer movements of the 2nd). It was unsurprisingly well sold and (which I thought nice) a lot of (almost entirely) well behaved children. I think one of the real strengths of this format is it opens a concert up to children by providing such a brief programme.

The Beethoven cycle resumed on Tuesday 22nd August with the arguably too famous sixth symphony, the pastoral:

I must confess that the 6th is probably my least favourite Beethoven. I think the first two movements can drag a little and the best stuff is in the middle. Still, Mackerras played them about as well as I've heard (save E Kleiber on disc with the Concertgebouw, albeit rather poorly recorded). The third movement was quite lovely (especially the bassoons) but I was stolen by the 4th - never have I heard it sound quite so convincinly like a storm: all the textures, rain, wind, thunder, etc., seemed to be there in the concert hall.

For those more knowledgeable I might pose a question. Is Beethoven better with a small band? I think we're hearing things in this cycle due to the different balance between the strings and other groups that one doesn't normally hear with larger groups (save perhaps Davis with the Dresdeners).

Thursday the 24th and it was the turn of the fourth:

Thursday saw the Beethoven continue with the 4th (unfairly maligned by some as a step backwards among his works). I must say, it's one of my favourites and I don't much agree with the oft printed assertion that it is Haydnesque.

Still, Mackerras and the SCO gave it a wonderfully energetic reading with some stunning playing throughout (save perhaps one slightly fluffed entry from the horns).

Interestingly, I observed above just how restrained Mackerras has been in his conducting (and, I suspect partly due to issues with his arms, his style seems to have changed somewhat), however, he has been getting more dynamic and energetic as the series goes on - it is a remarkable performance from a man approaching his 81st birthday.

Week two's Beethoven concluded on Saturday 26th August with the wonderful seventh, and what a seventh:

I don't know how much I can really add to Ian's WOW in describing the Beethoven 7th. Probably my favourite of all the symphonies, I first met it in a stunning, edge of the seat kind of reading, given by Daniel Harding and the Bremen chamber orchestra he was about to leave (indeed, this at the Maltings was their penultimate concert together). I will not describe again (as I think I have done so several times here before), but suffice to say it set the bar very high indeed and I have always been chasing down that perfect reading on CD, especially one with as energetic a finale. I have not yet been sucessful (though several have come very close).

Mackerras and the SCO more than rose to the challenge in what was possibly the highlight of the series so far. The way he held the tension with the solo flute just before the main theme comes in the first movement was unbearable, in a good way. The joy of the third movement was divine. But the 4th movement astonished even me. I don't think I've ever heard it so fast [since then I've heard if faster, on CD from Dudamel, and discovered you can take it too fast], and the energy on display (given he's approaching his 81st birthday) was staggering. This the more interesting because for the most part I think he's been taking things that bit slower than his RLPO cycle on disc. However, it really was quite something. [On a side note, Donald Runnicles, who was about to conduct the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner's 6th later that evening, could be spied elsewhere in the dress circle.

With barely a pause for breath, the cycle continued on Sunday 27th August with the 8th symphony:

Sunday night saw Beethoven 8 (and the penultimate appearance of the SCO in this cycle). I have recently raved about Colin Davis's epic reading (an almost Mahlerian approach to this work - I don't mean it sounds like Mahler, more that his reading drains in the same way and has a similar feeling of distance travelled). Mackerras comes from another direction entirely. Much brisker but none the less very satisfying. One of the things that really struck me is that in a symphony that is often seen as a soft of safe filler between 7 and 9 (and somewhat neglected as a result), was how dangerous Mackerras made the work feel. That and the extraordinary playing of the principal cello [David Watkin] in the minuet.

Wednesday 30th August saw the final appearance of the SCO in the penultimate concert, which, conversely, featured the first symphony:

Fortunatley, things returned to form [this not in respect to the other concert, but rather a reference to a couple of evenings of interminably bad drama] with last night's Beethoven and the final from the SCO. They have played wonderfully for this series and did so once again. Mackerras conducted a superb first (perhaps the finest I have heard). There was some extraordinary string playing in the third movement and the most witty reading of the finale I can imagine. The Philharmonia are on duty for the 9th tomorrow. I can't wait.

The final concert in the series, on Friday 1st September, was marked by a change in forces from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to the Philharmonia. This occasioned some moaning the Scottish press, especially from Michael Tumelty in the Herald. In a article the title of which contained an unfortunate typo, referring instead to a 'Mozart' cycle, moaned as to how the brilliant SCO were being robbed of this last concert. I agree they had played superbly and would made a good ninth too (when the concerts were broadcast Donald McLeod said one was in the works, but this has never materialised). However, the original plan was actually to split the cycle roughly fifty/fifty between the two orchestras, however it wasn't practical to get the Philharmonia up for that length of time, so in the end their contribution was pared down to one. Regardless, it was good to have their heft for the 9th (though, if anyone from the SCO is reading this, I still want to hear them do it with Sir Charles, either on the CD or in concert - it would make a good season opener).

Well, tonight's Beethoven 9th was very fine indeed. Mackerras opts for pretty brisk tempi (as he has done throughout, and in this work for reasons very well laid out in his liner note for the [EMI] cd set). What moved me most was the wonderful second movement which he played with a lightness of touch that I have rarely, if ever, associated with it - more usually it is heavy and serious (and too often ponderous). The slow movement was lovely, and those key chords I have gone on at lenght about on the Beethoven thread sent shivers down my spine.

The only reservation comes with the finale. Not anything to do with the conducting or the orchestral playing (the Philharmonia were wonderful, especially their string playing and timpanist - I was also impressed by how much better the horns were than for Blomstedt the other night). Indeed, they proved exactly why Michael Tummulty writing in the Herald was so wrong when he complained the SCO should have done this. The Philharmonia provided a larger and richer sound so utterly different to the smaller band (and so sucessful in this work) that could never have been achieved. And anyway, to augment the SCO sufficiently could have wiped away much of its charm. No, the reservations concern the chorus (the soloists were broadly speaking fine, especially alto Catherine Wyn-Rogers). I have said before that the Festival Chorus are not first rate, indeed, I do not even think they are close to being the finest chorus in Scotland (the SCO one is wonderful, though would have been too small, the Edinburgh Choral Union are great); however, it was a terrible shame the Philharmonia didn't bring their own chorus. The diction was poor and the was a slight lack of clarity. However, it wasn't awful, and the direction and playing more than made up for it. However, it does make the quotes in the programme seem faintly ironic: "one of the three great choirs of Europe" says Herbert von Karajan (it must be a little while since he was in a position to judge!).

I feel supremely lucky to have had the chance to hear Mackerras conduct all these symphonies and it really has a dream come true. I can't recommend them highly enough when they come to be broadcast. The freshness he has brought to these works (along with an energy that would be beyond many half his age) has really been something.

A couple of final points should be added concerning those broadcasts and the subsequent CD issue on Hyperion. The are in certain respects a major disappointment. Not, you understand, musically, they couldn't remove the magic but the engineers did try their best to do so. These are among the most terribly recorded discs I've had in recent years, that's one thing when you've unuearthed an ancient treasure from the archives, but in 2006 it simply shouldn't be the case and is unacceptable, the more so given how well Linn have been recording the orchestra lately. The main complaints are that the sound is extremely harsh and, second, that a lot of the detail has been lost. Given one wonderful highlight was the details he found in the score, this is a bitter pill. The wind section, who played so remarkably throughout, are particularly poorly served, especially, say, in the third movement of the sixth symphony. The Hyperion CDs, which came more from rehearsals, are better, but are still not as good as they should have been. Producer Bill Lloyd and engineers Matt Parkin and Mike Hatch, I'm looking at you. Before anyone blames the Usher Hall's acoustic, which I anyway think is good, I'd only note the fine recordings that Philips, DG and most of all Telarc have made with the same forces, in the same location, which suffer none of these troubles. That said, they are a nice memento and well worth picking up.

The concerts remain one of the finest experiences I have ever had in the concert hall and I regard it has a tremendous privilege to have been able to attend them all. They are memories I shall treasure for the rest of my life.

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