Monday 15 November 2010

A musical tribute to Charles Mackerras

It's difficult to review this concert objectively.  Charles Mackerras was probably my favourite conductor and, as I explained in my tribute to him, he provided me with many unique musical experiences and shaped my tastes massively.  This concert, which comprised many works with which he was closely associated, frequently brought those things to mind as well as the gap that he leaves behind.  It was an extremely emotional experience, but I expect that would have been the case had the players come on and sat in silence for three hours.  To these ears, though, just as well that they didn't!

The programme was divided between two London orchestras with whom Mackerras enjoyed long relationships.  The first half, or rather, the first third, was given over to the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment.  Appropriately they played the Handel's firework music.  Appropriate because back before period performance was cool, Mackerras unearthed, premiered and recorded, the original wind arrangement.  Sadly that wasn't what we got, but it did have a satisfyingly rasping quality and as much of a richness as you could get without the absurd numbers of wind instruments called for.  In the hands of Steven Devine it also benefitted from not feeling routine or twee, as it too often can.  It wasn't perfect though, and while it's true that playing period horns without without cracks or fluffs is tricky, the sheer quantity was far, far more than should have been the case.

They were then joined by soprano Mhairi Lawson, standing in for Rebecca Evans, for two Handel arias.  Lawson possessed a nicely toned voice, though it was fairly small and needed slightly more sensitive accompaniment than Devine delivered.  Of the two, Let the bright seraphim from Samson was the most impressive, not least for the trumpet solos that David Blackadder delivered alongside Lawson.

Much more special was to follow, though, with Dvořák's seventh symphony.  This, of course, is the work that, more than any other, is to blame for Mackerras's association with Czech music, for it was this that he was leafing through in a London cafe when someone approached him and suggested he apply to study in Prague; the rest, as they say, is history.  The Philharmonia benefitted from having recently delivered a stunning performance under his baton in one of his last recordings.  Conductor Tomas Netopil delivered a wonderful reading, filled with drama and eliciting beautifully playing from the orchestra.  He also showed a nice affinity for the rhythms of the piece.  However, it was in the devastating emotional intensity of the climaxes that this performance really left its mark, often bringing a tear to my eyes.  I was left wondering if this work will now forever have that effect.

The evening's final section got off to a slightly disappointing start.  Of course, Mackerras was closely associated with Mozart, but not especially so with the K364 Sinfonia Concertante, which is not one of Mozart's great works.  Indeed, it was rather difficult to see why it had been placed on the programme instead of, say, one of his later symphonies or an operatic overture.  A check of the Philharmonia's season brochure soon provided the answer: Mackerras had been scheduled to conduct it and doubtless the soloists were already booked.  While it was nice enough, it was also rather plain and dull, especially compared to the sparkle Mackerras would have brought to it.  And while violinist Julian Rachlin and violist Lawrence Power were visually fairly fun to watch, they were musically rather bland.

They finished the evening with the composer to whose work Mackerras made perhaps his greatest and most lasting contribution: Leoš Janáček.  They played both Mackerras's own arrangement of a suite from The Cunning Little Vixen (including recent revisions he never got the opportunity to perform) and the final scene from the same opera.  Conductor Alexander Briger, also Mackerras's nephew, told us how, when sharing a bottle of wine after a performance of The Makropulos Case, on which they worked together at ENO, Mackerras had explained that Vixen was his favourite opera and that, if there was ever any sort of memorial concert for him, the final scene should be included.  Both were given fine performances, full of rich playing and a sense of drama, not to mention Thomas Allen giving a fine turn as the old gamekeeper.  Briger showed a fair few traits that seemed to come from his uncle, such as the way he pointed his finger when cuing in the brass or the way he held his shoulders.

That wasn't quite enough, though, and they gave us an encore which, as Briger said, needed no introduction.  Well, for most of us.  Taking the bus home I overheard one patron complaining she didn't know and nor did the person next to her.  Obviously they weren't Gilbert and Sullivan fans for it was, of course, the overture to Pineapple Poll.  After all, what tribute to this widest ranging of conductors would be complete without G&S, and what better way to include it than with part of the ballet that he arranged.  They played it with the same sort of panache as he always brought.

There's a phrase: jack of all trades and master of none.  It comes to mind when thinking about this wide ranging programme which, wide though it was, only scratched the surface of Mackerras's vast repertoire and expertise.  One of the things that made him such a great musical figure was that he was a jack of all trades and master of most of them.

It may not have been a perfect concert, but it was a very special evening and as fitting a tribute as one could ask for a person who contributed so much to the musical life of this country.

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