Philharmonia/Sir Charles Mackerras

Wagner, Mozart, Janacek

Royal Festival Hall, 24 June 2007 4 stars


This was my first visit to the renovated Royal Festival Hall and the first three pages of the programme notes for the evening dealt with the refurbishment. So, while music making on the highest level was part of the performance, let me start with the refurbishment.

Larry Kirkegaard, in charge of the acoustic changes, writes in the programme notes: 'Over the stage you can see the new adjustable acoustic wings or canopies that stretch the width of the stage. The sound engineers can rotate these wings to allow low, or bass, frequencies to resonate in the space above the stage, and for higher, or treble, frequencies to be reflected back to improve feedback to performers.'

Though, obviously, audiences will play a major part at all Festival Hall concerts, it seems that the conditions of recording studios - where sound engineers contribute significantly to the final output - have been added to live events. It is not clear when and on whose decision these wings will rotate. Will sound engineers be credited for their work, as they are elsewhere (for example on CDs)?

During the opening item of the Philharmonia Orchestra's programme, Wagner's Meistersinger Overture, I heard some parts of the orchestra echoing. I hasten to add that my friend next to me and a colleague immediately behind me were unaware of the echoes. Nevertheless, I am certain that resonances from some of the instruments on some parts of the stage were stronger and louder as desirable. The quality of sound reminded me of that of some church performances. Perhaps a slightly slower tempo would have eliminated the occasional blurred texture, but Sir Charles Mackerras' lively speed to the introduction of Wagner's only mature happy opera should not cause problems in a world-class concert hall.

After the nine-minute long Wagner introduction we had an unofficial break of almost the same length as a piano had to be brought on and the orchestra re-seated. I can't help wondering whether such programming was wise, especially as it is difficult to find strong links between Wagner and Mozart.

The performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, K. 503, featured exquisite chamber-music like qualities. The reduced orchestra responded splendidly both to Mackerras' sensitive Mozart style and to Mitsuko Uchida's piano playing. To complete the wholeness, it was clear that Uchida held the conductor in high regard and, therefore, scaled her performance accordingly. Her first theme in the first movement was answered with equal sensitivity by the first oboe. Such exchanges between Uchida and members of the orchestra were plentiful during the whole concerto. In the final movement the solo cellist played as a caring chamber music partner rather than with a 'this is my great moment' attitude, which spoils so many performances. Surprisingly, Uchida often played repeated passages (such as semiquaver scales and the like) the same way. Yet Mozart apparently said that he never wrote the same music twice.

Janácek's Sinfonietta received a superb performance. The brass excelled throughout but special thanks are due to the nine trumpets, two tubas, two trombones and timpani for their faultless playing in the opening fanfare movement, which is scored only for these instruments. Czech folk dance was clearly evident in the second movement, where I marvelled at the ensemble between cellos and double basses: they were placed far from each other but their important dance motives sounded in perfect unison. The third movement gave us a beautiful passionate song, again with some beautiful oboe solos. The regular Philharmonia trumpets, rather than the nine extra trumpets for the fanfares, delighted with their opening theme in the fourth movement, as they also did with their other solos later in the movement. Flutes, clarinet and oboe were responsible for much of the beauty in the final movement, but the entire orchestra showed that they are easily capable of great performances under great conductors.

It is unlikely that the audience at this concert will ever hear a better performance of Janácek's Sinfonietta. Another interpretation and realisation might be possible but never a better performance. We were privileged to be at present.

By Agnes Kory