Review of RLPO/Mackerras premiere

Richard Whitehouse

Royal Liverpool PO:Mackerras premiere - Richard Whitehouse The performance of Symphony No 7 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras on April 1987, had the makings of a momentous occasion for HB devotees. Indeed, as the first half of the concert ran its course I wondered whether some of us at least were expecting too much.

In the event, the performance was a triumph for all concerned. True, Mackerras’s rendering of the first movement came initially as a surprise; trenchant and weighty, it almost seemed to be placing more emphasis on the structure than it could stand. It was only as the movement progressed that one realized how successful was his interpretation in clarifying the thematic strands of Brian’s argument. One could fully appreciate the extent to which this movement, far from being merely ‘preludial’ in the context of the work, was in fact an integral part of the overall symphonic concept. The enigmatic central section, in particular, became much more clearly a foretaste of what was to follow.

There is little that need be said about Mackerras’s unmannered, exuberant account of the second movement save that, as elsewhere, the nuancing of instrumental detail was a joy to the ear. Clearly, the adrenalin flowed freely throughout the movement, culminating in a blaze of excitement in the closing pages. Unlike Newstone in his 1966 performance, Mackerras maintained the E bell’s initial dynamic through all five strokes — making this closing effect less one of receding optimism than of emotional ambivalence.

This ambivalence could be readily perceived throughout Mackerras’s tense, unyielding rendering of the third movement’s opening ‘scherzo’ section, whose brutal culmination — thence transition into the Symphony’s ‘slow movement’ — was brought off with tremendous fervour. As this latter progressed, one realized how mutually interdependent and organic the two sections were — creating a movement whose overall progress, even in the wake of the terrifying vivo agitato outburst, never seemed less than inevitable.

Mackerras’s approach to the finale was apparent from the outset: where the march rhythm’s grim oppressiveness all but banished any future hope of affirmation. As a consequence, the solo violin’s poignant sense of loss and the full orchestra’s ensuing rebuttal were all the more intense; the Symphony’s A major resting point emerging not so much as a precarious benediction but as a promise of future, albeit gradual, resolution.

In view of the RLPO’s recent troubled past, it is good to be able to report a high standard of musical excellence. However much the conductor’s interpretation transcended the difficulties posed by the score, the requirements placed by Brian on orchestral responsiveness would have proved taxing to any major ensemble. The effort and concentration plainly being expended by the musicians was gratifying; the individual virtuosity constantly directed towards a corporate musicianship admirable. Long as the seventh symphony has waited for its public premiere, it was a wait which, in the event, definitely proved worthwhile.

NL 71 / © Richard Whitehouse

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