United Kingdom Mozart and Mahler: Piotr Anderszewski (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Nikolaj Znaider (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 4.4.2013 (MB)
Mozart : Piano Concerto no.25 in C major, KV 503
Mahler: Symphony no.5
Two stern tests, very different, for any conductor: Mozart and Mahler. Nikolaj Znaider performed more than creditably, though his Mahler will doubtless be very different in ten years’ time, let alone forty. Perhaps most surprising was the revelation of a Mozartian spirit that eludes more than a tiny number of conductors of whatever degree of experience. The opening ritornello of the Twenty-fifth Piano Concerto was crisp, majestically full-bodied, imaginatively coloured without being in the slightest fussy; Sir Colin Davis would not have been ashamed of the results. There was, the Almighty be praised, no nonsense with ‘natural’ trumpets or hard sticks on the kettledrums; there were none of those infuriating ‘effects’ employed to distract one from the sad reality that a conductor has no feeling for the harmonic rhythm of the work. And so the contribution from Znaider and the LSO continued. Piotr Anderszewski’s response was finely shaded, especially when conversing with the woodwind, who proved, without exception, their usual exquisite selves. Anderszewski’s playing was often characterful, though occasionally it could fall into the ‘neutrality’ that plagues many a performance of Mozart in C major. His left-hand trills were to die for, though, even if the patchwork cadenza – presumably his own – was not. The slow movement was serene, long-breathed, and taken at an unhurried tempo of which one might have lost all hope today. Crucial to its success was the ability to phrase, from all concerned. In short, it was a true slow movement, and not just in terms of tempo. (Sadly, the bronchially challenged, the leg scratchers, the jewellery janglers, the wristwatch alarm enthusiasts, and other terroristic forces were out in good number, but they annoyed rather than overwhelmed.)
Anderszewski’s ornamentation was judicious both in style and execution. The finale again benefited from a well-chosen tempo, permitting of grace and ebullience. Some of Anerszewski’s playing was rather sec, even Gould-like, for my taste, but it was full of contrasts, never un-eventful. Once again, Znaider showed himself a highly sympathetic Mozartian, alert both to harmony and to rhythm, flexible too. The LSO woodwind soloists showed themselves once again at the top of their – and Mozart’s – game: ravishing!
If Mozart is the most difficult of all composers to perform, then Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is as difficult to bring off as anything by Beethoven. I was privileged last year to hear a truly great performance, from Daniele Gatti and the Philharmonia, but more frequent has been the experience of conductors, some of them highly esteemed indeed, having their fingers burned. (I shall resist the temptation to provide names and telephone numbers…) Znaider’s reading was not on the level of Gatti’s; no one could reasonably expect it to be. However, there was enough promise in it to suggest that this might stand at the beginning of an interesting Mahlerian journey, not a claim I offer lightly. It is perhaps worth noting that, unlike the Mozart concerto, the symphony was conducted from memory. Znaider placed the violins together on his left, but violas rather than cellos on his right.
The opening of the first movement was brash, cataclysmic, with superb playing from the first trumpet, Philip Cobb. More Bernstein than Kubelík, this was certainly exciting in its way, and commendably flexible too, with sharply drawn dramatic contrasts. As befits a violinist, there was considerable attention paid to the projection of individual string parts. And yet, there was something not quite ‘right’, at least to my ears, about the overall sonority, and that was not just a matter of the vibrato-laden brass. Perhaps it was more a result of Valery Gergiev’s ill-fated LSO Mahler cycle than of Znaider’s intention, or perhaps he has been spending too much time with the Mariinsky Orchestra. Sound and balances seemed at times closer to Prokofiev and even Shostakovich than to Mahler. It was never dull, but it was not always clear where this Mahler had come from: certainly not from Wagner, still less from Beethoven, Mozart, or Bach. The second movement was rightly taken quickly, as the conclusion of the first part of the symphony, though that did not prevent Coughers’ Awareness from renewing our communal awareness. Tension was less prone to sag than in the first movement, and again tempo fluctuations were considerable, though not unreasonable. Wagner now was certainly to be heard from the violins, with their Tristan-esque insinuations: excellent! If sonorities still sometimes sounding a little odd, especially in the case of the ‘Soviet’ barrage from brass and percussion, then that was less of a problem than earlier on. There was, moreover, some gloriously ‘deep’ playing from the cellos, and later on from the string section as a whole. And if the first appearance of that extraordinary chorale of frustrated promise sounded with more Technicolor than was ideal, Znaider and the LSO captured the right degree of hollowness, which ultimately is more important than any question of ‘accent’.
The scherzo opened most successfully, with splendid swing and real bite to its counterpoint, which offered premonitions of the ‘Bach on acid’ of the Ninth Symphony’s Rondo Burleske. It was clear by now that this was not going to be Mahler as progenitor of Berg and Webern, yet, taken on its own terms, it was working increasingly well, certainly far superior to Gergiev’s bizarrely unidiomatic attempts. Tricky corners – a gross understatement! –were skilfully navigated. Above all, there was a sense of this second part to the symphony as equivocal pivot. And the conclusion – which is of course anything but – both thrilled and terrified, even though both experiences would have been heightened with greater preparation.
Znaider’s tempo for the Adagietto struck me as ideal: neither maudlin, nor aggressively ‘revisionist’. No ‘point’ was being made; the music was permitted to speak. And so it did, to great advantage, now that the orchestra was shorn of the ‘colouristic’ excesses of brass and percussion. Grave beauty emerged from Mahler’s variegated string writing. Moreover, Znaider never confused sentiment with sentimentality; the clouds began to clear in earnest. This movement proved well-nigh exemplary, quite an achievement for any conductor. Equally impressive was the conductor’s manipulation of connections through pitch and rhythm to ensure that the finale grew out of its predecessor, rather than simply following on. Counterpoint was for the most part clear, and at its best, the movement exhibited an almost Haydn-like sense of play. If the ‘accent’ once again wandered at times, and there were a few instances of a fuzziness perhaps born of tiredness, much of the spirit remained. Crucially, Mahler’s enigmatic quality endured; there were no easy answers.