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Beethoven Cycle: Philharmonia Orchestra: Sir Charles Mackerras & Marek Janowski, RFH, 7th & 12th March 2002 (MB)

Rather like the London Philharmonic’s Beethoven cycle earlier this year the Philharmonia’s has also suffered from the loss of its scheduled conductor – in this case Wolfgang Sawallisch. The replacements – Charles Mackerras for the first two and Marek Janowski for the third – proved in their own ways revelatory, making the indisposition of Sawallisch less regrettable than it might have been. What would have been even more desirable, however, would have been a cycle under the orchestra’s current Music Director, Christoph von Dohnanyi: in the past he has conducted some astonishing Beethoven on the South Bank.

Mackerras and Janowski approach Beethoven from opposite polar angles, although both it should be said owe something in their interpretations to period practise. If this is more obviously the case with Mackerras who rightly divides his first and second violins (imperative in the Eroica) and uses brass sparingly, neither are slaves to historical performance traditions. Mackerras took a long view of the Eroica, although in doing so some of the natural warmth of the Philharmonia’s string sound became dissipated. Rather than that breadth of sonority this orchestra can bring to Beethoven we had a clearer, leaner sound, perfectly in keeping with Mackerras’ fleet tempi. The string sound was all the more astonishing given that Mackerras had the orchestra play some time after his beat. This meant that the opening E Flat chords had less weight than is usual, and yet the concentration of tone, the intensity of the drama were as ideal as they should be. More impressive was Mackerras’ innate ability to take the work not as an isolationist set of granite blocks but to give genuine expressiveness to the dynamic markings. Forte and fortissimo were distinct in sound. Impressive also was his handling of the Funeral March taken with a measured steadiness. When it came to the vast fugato climax (still one of the greatest things in any symphony) the drama disintegrated more powerfully than in any performance I have recently heard of this symphony live.

Mackerras’ Beethoven is above all else spontaneous – and the Allegro molto supplied ample evidence of this. His opening performance of the Egmont Overture had these virtues in abundance also, but it ultimately lacked the sheer virility of a Koussevitsky or a young Celibidache. The Egmont needs a firebrand in charge and Mackerras was not quite fired enough.

If Mackerras had given the Philharmonia a leaner string sound then Janowski brought Teutonic weight to their sound. The violins, bunched to the left, played with deeper tone than they had done in the Eroica, but most impressive were cellos and double basses which were sinister in the darkness of tone they displayed. The performance itself was swift, less mannered than one might have expected from Janowski, a conductor schooled in the traditionalist mould. If anything the playing was more impressive than it had been for Mackerras.

Each concert had a concerto thrown in for good measure. Mackerras had Murray Perahia as soloist in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. The performance was little short of astonishing with Perahia displaying an elegance and care for dynamic markings which had been sadly lacking in Brendl’s performance of the Emperor concerto with the LSO last month. Perahia’s finger-work was note perfect, his trills glittered and the panache he brought to the long cadenzas was simply stunning. This was great playing by any standards. As if this were not enough, proving that lightening often can strike twice in the same place, Frank Peter Zimmerman’s performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto was itself a small miracle. The tone was gorgeously sweet, but above all this was a performance which gave the concerto a sublime lyricism. In a work that can often seem over long, notably in the first movement, this was a performance which held the attention. Gripping playing.

It is likely that Sawallisch will be well enough to complete the cycle later in the year but these concerts beggar the question whether there are conductors of sufficient greatness to undertake a complete cycle with evenly expressed results. Under a single conductor it is unlikely the results would have been quite so impressive as they were. Moreover, one wonders why orchestras see a need for complete Beethoven cycles when there are other cycles less frequently heard such as those of Dvorak or Tchaikovsky.

Marc Bridle

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