In concert – Paul Lewis, CBSO / Christoph König: Mozart & Mahler

Paul Lewis (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Christoph König

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major, K595 (1788-91)

Mahler Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-02)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 21 April 2022, 2.15pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Back from a first European tour since the pandemic and following the Easter break, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra hit the ground running with a programme of contrasts featuring Mozart’s last piano concerto and what is likely Mahler’s most popular symphony.

It may have been finished early during his final year, but Mozart’s 27th Piano Concerto was drafted several years earlier, while its relative inwardness as compared to those from 1785-6 need not be read as fatalistic; still less be taken for valediction. This was certainly how Paul Lewis approached it with a poised but never flaccid opening Allegro – its subtle contrasts of themes and dynamics creating their own, discreet momentum with an eloquent rendering of the development then a lucid cadenza such as brought the whole movement deftly full circle.

Might it be that this concerto is only as good as the best performances? Thanks to Lewis the central Larghetto never risked seeming plain spun or uniform, piano dovetailing into strings and woodwind to ingratiating effect. In the closing Allegro, Christoph König pointed up the dance-like robustness of its rondo theme with a lilting impetus as never faltered. This is one of Mozart’s few concertos where his own cadenzas survive; Lewis’s probing manner in the finale setting the seal on a reading as thoughtfully conceived as it was insightfully realized.

His recent recordings of Louise Farrenc having gained widespread praise, König is evidently a conductor in demand and his account of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony provided a decisive, no-nonsense take on this much-played piece. Not least an initial Funeral March whose bracing objectivity did not preclude a more visceral response to its frenzied climax or ominous close. Its successor’s competing strands of violence and resignation were purposefully juxtaposed, through to the as-yet provisional emergence of the chorale then a tellingly speculative coda.

Time and again the central Scherzo fails to fulfil its role as this work’s formal or expressive crux, and if König’s approach fell short of the ultimate conviction, it was more than usually cohesive – whether in the discursive unfolding of its ländler-informed sections or the central trio with its rustically evocative overtones. Equally persuasive were those transitions either side, thereby endowing the movement with a cohesive follow-through which paid dividends during a coda whose unalloyed ebullience more than usually indicated what was to follow.

Most conductors now make the famous Adagietto a soulful interlude rather than full-blown slow movement, König going further by making it an extended introduction to the closing Rondo. This evolved almost seamlessly through the gradual intensification of ideas already heard towards the re-emergence of that chorale, here blazing forth with an affirmation that did not pre-empt those final bars in their almost nonchalant affirmation. Mahler might have written deeper finales, but not one whose triumph over adversity was so potently achieved.

An impressive demonstration, too, of the CBSO’s collective prowess (while not neglecting that of trumpeter Matthew Williams) for what is well worth catching in Saturday’s repeat performance; before this orchestra offers ‘something completely different’ next Thursday.

For more information on the CBSO’s 2021-22 season, click here

Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Paul Lewis and Christoph König

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