Philharmonia Piotr Anderszewski.

Philharmonia Orchestra | Live

Nigel Jarrett casts a critical eye over a performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra at St David’s Hall in Cardiff featuring soloist Piotr Anderszewski.

Not the least consideration for a composer is how to go on – and how to go on with justification and purpose. Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, at thirty-five minutes a reasonably lengthy work, might be considered a farewell to the example of Mozart, lovingly lingered over. Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is a grand entry into a world not predicated on song and text in the certain hope of further discovery and advancement of absolute music, ever a debatable subject where Mahler was concerned. Neither was prepared to do anything by half and each was taking a new path. These performances by the Philharmonia and the Polish pianist-composer Piotr Anderszewski sparkled with a recognition of these important historical features.

Philharmonia Piotr Anderszewski Mahler
Piotr Anderszewski. Photo: Robert Workman/Virgin Classics.

There’s always an added frisson with Anderszewski, who famously walked off the platform at the 1990 Leeds competition in the middle of his recital because he wasn’t happy with his playing – thus disqualifying himself – and at least once has offered an eccentric encore, probably connected with this same fastidiousness.

The Czech Jakub Hrůša, one of the Philharmonia’s two principal guest conductors, probably winces at a music magazine’s opinion six years ago that he was one of ten conductors ‘on the verge of greatness’, whatever that meant. Ever on the edge: a precarious state.

The Philharmonia was always an aristocratic band, with a pedigree to which it has mostly remained true. For sure it was unconcerned here with timings, ever an obsession with Mahlerites frustrated by the habitual dilatoriness of conductors such as Sinopoli and his sympathisers. Hrůša launched the symphony in free fall, opting for a looseness of tempi that suggested the music would take as long as it took, with nothing of its salient features and signage obscured. The opening funeral march heralded by as arresting a trumpet motif as one could wish for – principal Jason Evans and his team the first to be acknowledged at the end of the concert – fairly thunderstormed into the following allegro.

Mahler himself had premonitions about the scherzo (Tim Ellis’s horn a feature here) that comes after, as much for its invitations to haste as anything else. Is it a waltz? Hrůša didn’t appear to label it thus, though it appeared to waver between waltz and Ländler (a slow three-in-a-bar with an Austrian provenance), the latter properly taken in a sequence and for which settling on a proper nomenclature would be important. Mahler certainly didn’t want it hurried, though later on he understood that goading was necessary. Maybe he was aware of outstaying a frolicsome welcome; and perhaps distinguishing between waltz and Ländler and the relative tempi of both is one of the small discriminations that make a good conductor ‘great’.

The famous adagietto was regally played, as a kind of sublime stopover on Mahler’s long day’s journey into light rather than as a sorrowful movement brooking no recovery. Everyone revelled in the finale, with its typical Mahlerian hodge-podge of the faux-traditional, the dewy-eyed, and the overpoweringly dramatic. It’s common in this orchestra after a marathon to acknowledge everyone, so sharp is the playing. The conductor even strode across to congratulate Tim Gibbs, the principal bass, not least for the way his team had whipped the second movement into being.

One was never sure what Anderszewski, the embodiment of ‘cool’, might deliver in the Beethoven. Early on his playing was marked by caprice, as if that long wait before his entry excused impatience, but the electric charge with which his playing soon began to stutter sforzando seemed appropriate to a piece of music that combines the shape and balance of Mozart with the mood of its composer, long immersed in the mad gladiatorial jousting of 1790s Vienna, and keen to move on while enjoying the kudos of being top honcho.

The risk here was that the soloist might disengage rather than act as a calming influence on the dramatic contrasts precipitately introduced by the orchestra at the beginning. But, in a curious way, Anderszewski’s charisma, far from unsettling the orchestra’s equanimity, seemed to reflect what some would see as the spirit of the piece, in which Beethoven is being Beethoven while signalling homage to his predecessor.

Anderszewski was hypnotic, if a mite introspective, in the second movement’s florid passages, out of which bursts, like the Mahler finale from the symphony’s adagietto, a rondo that not even Mozart could have conceived; and this was one performed in the spirit of its recurrences as well as its in-between themes. It was a performance that had the edginess we associate with ‘live’ playing, vindicated by the thrill of not knowing what exactly was going to happen next.

Philharmonia Orchestra
Soloist: Piotr Anderszewski (piano)
Conductor: Jakub Hrůša

Beethoven: Piano Concerto N. 1 in C
Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C Sharp minor

St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 18 February 2018

Header photo of Jakub Hrůša courtesy

Nigel Jarrett is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Wales Arts Review. He is a poet, novelist, and story writer. His latest collection of stories, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published in 2016. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, latterly, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. He also writes and reviews for Jazz Journal and Acumen poetry magazine. This year sees the publication of his short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy.