Review: Philharmonia/Mackerras

Posted on December 16, 2009

Royal Festival Hall, London

The Romantics made much of the idea of nature as a place of beauty and peril that offered an escape from the oppressions of mundane existence. The second of Charles Mackerras’s Philharmonia concerts toyed with contrasting natural perspectives by prefacing excerpts from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Both works are characterised by a sense of wonder at a world that seems close yet unfamiliar, and which can turn from benign to threatening in a flash.

Extracts from Hansel and Gretel don’t, however, quite give us the flavour of the complete score. Mackerras’s selection comprised the overture and opening scenes of the first act, followed by the second act from the Sandman’s aria onwards. He conducted with a delicacy that peered back through Humperdinck’s Wagnerisms to the comparative lightness of Mendelssohn and Schumann. There was fine singing, too, from Rebecca Bottone‘s wide-eyed Gretel and Caitlin Hulcup’s gawky Hansel. But one wanted more of it, above all, from the darker sections of the score where shadows appear and things get very sinister.

Reversing the running order so that the Humperdinck came after the Beethoven was perhaps an error, since Mackerras’s performance of the Pastoral was incomparable. He has conducted this score on many occasions, yet he brings to it a genuine wonder, as if tackling it for the first time. His interpretation is also far from safe or comfortable. The brook’s current, in the second movement, can be fierce and the storm has a violence that threatens to bring the rest of Beethoven’s symphonic edifice crashing down. The Philharmonia played to perfection for him, too.

Tim Ashley


Published on 15 December at

Rebecca Bottone will be appearing with Manchester Camerata at its New Year’s Eve Gala Concert at The Bridgewater Hall, conducted by Clark Rundell and also featuring Bonaventura Bottone. For more information visit the What’s On section of our website.