United Kingdom Mozart, Bruckner: Paul Lewis (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 8.2.2105 (AS)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, K503
Bruckner: Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1889 version)
Paul Lewis is clearly a very serious musician who eschews any kind of spurious showmanship in his performances. But paradoxically the quality of seriousness in his musical personality communicates powerfully to his audiences and is itself a strong element in his attractiveness as a player. His individual qualities were at once evident in the first movement of the Mozart concerto. The sound he evoked from the keyboard was clean and clear yet warm in tone quality, and he brought a classical but at the same time expressive approach to the solo part. His playing was sensitive, fluent and completely free of idiosyncrasy. His was not a large-scale conception of the piano part, but it was unpretentious and quietly satisfying. Nelsons and the orchestra supported him sensitively. In the central Andante Lewis did search a little more into the music but once again his clarity and sense of classical style predominated. Unsurprisingly, those qualities were also strongly present in a straightforward but beautifully executed finale.
We then heard Bruckner’s Third Symphony – in the 1888/89 revision, which was made by Franz Schalk in collaboration with the composer. This is the version most frequently performed today: it was published in 1959 under the editorship of Leopold Nowak as part of the supposedly authoritative Bruckner Complete Critical Edition.
In today’s world, where authenticity is a watchword, it seems surprising that conductors do not habitually use the original 1873 version of the Third Symphony. It lasts for about an hour and a quarter, which is long, but no longer than the Eighth Symphony, or indeed most of the Mahler symphonies. So length should not be a problem for concert promoters. The 1888/89 version is especially frowned upon by many of today’s Bruckner scholars, who deplore the radical cuts and changes in the score, leaving a work that usually lasts less than hour in performance. Listeners who have heard the magnificent original score, as recorded for instance by Georg Tintner on Naxos (review), will know that the composer’s first thoughts were best.
Judged purely on his realisation of the score in front of him, Andris Nelsons conducted with great skill. The first movement was taken at a slightly slow basic tempo, but momentum was well maintained, there was secure rhythmic strength and some nice detail. But the slowness of tempo meant that the following movement, an Adagio, also taken rather slowly, didn’t provide as much contrast as it might have done, though again Nelsons, with his precise, detailed direction, phrased the music carefully. The Philharmonia’s principal horn, the youthful Katy Woolley, showed herself here to be a worthy inheritor of this orchestra’s outstanding horn tradition, which goes back to the great Dennis Brain and Alan Civil.
After two slow-ish movements it was something of a relief to experience a robustly played, rhythmically buoyant Scherzo, with a nicely contrasted slower trio section. But the truncated, patchwork 1888/89 finale didn’t convince musically, despite Nelsons’s skilful changes of pulse and tempo. I would very much like to hear him conduct this fine orchestra, so well suited to Bruckner’s music, in the original, complete score