The setting of the LAC Lugano Arte e Cultura couldn’t be more beautiful. Flush along the shoreline of Lake Lugano, the complex welcomes music and art aficionados, flâneurs and restaurant-goers alike. The concert hall is a true eye-catcher: its warm coppery-gold wood encasement gradates away and upwards from the stage like a generous scallop shell. And the stage itself is broad enough to seat even large configurations such as the full St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, whose recent programme was performed under Romanian-Austrian conductor Ion Marin’s baton.

Ion Marin
© Stas Levshin

The concert itself began with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, a work that the composer himself premiered from the piano in Vienna, 1808. Here in Lugano, Nelson Freire was the featured soloist. The fine Brazilian pianist came on stage with some difficulty, yet his fingering – even in repertoire cited at its premiere as one of “monstrous difficulty” – would prove consistently athletic and agile. Taking a curled, humble posture at the keys, he showed himself a demure and no-nonsense transporter of the composer’s true gift. Particularly in the concerto’s Allegro moderato first movement, he played the creamy transitions Beethoven once defined as “like a call of tranquil Nature” with the tenderness of a bird’s morning call.

In the Andante con moto, the orchestra’s heavy textural background sometime compromised what was conceived of as a dialogue with the piano. The exchange of unison strings here that yield to the piano’s lyrical entreaties has been cited as “Orpheus taming the Furies”. Yet Freire seemed a lone soul in the wilderness, the volume of the great Imperial body behind him sometimes compromising his own solo part. Understandably, Freire was particularly generous with the pedal in the Rondo vivace. He tackled the case for contrasts: a simple rhythmic theme eventually giving way to one that is loud enough even to be bludgeoning. Freire even seemed anxious to accelerate the work towards its end; possibly the reason that his final, emphatic chord missed that of the orchestra’s by a split second.

Gustav Mahler’s tremendously evocative First Symphony (originally called “The Titan”) followed after the interval, the orchestra having been enlarged by some 25 additional players. Composed while Mahler worked at the Leipzig Oper, his First Symphony was finished in the spring of 1888 under the header of a “symphonic poem”. While its premiere a year later in Budapest met with little enthusiasm, Mahler was to conduct more performances of this symphony during his lifetime than any of his other works.

Here in Lugano, Ion Marin’s gestures and body language were almost playful at first, but as Mahler’s sound gathered greater dimension, he stood more firmly on the podium and showed himself a true powerhouse of renewable energy. In the first and most tranquil of the movements, flute and oboe soloists shone. The building of suspense, however, was slowed considerably, somewhat at the risk of losing a degree of definition. And dynamic control was something of an issue, too. What Mahler scored as “like a natural sound” often emerged as a boom box, although quite possibly, the sound amplified to such a degree owing to the acoustics of an unfamiliar hall.

In the second movement, scored by Mahler as Kräftig bewegt (moving strongly), the musicians delighted in their explosive outbreaks. The incorporation of a Ländler folk tune, however, was like meeting a familiar friend. The third movement was distinguished by a memorable trumpet solo that focused great energy into one brilliant and isolated line; what’s more, the repeating and familiar Frère Jacques sequence, which Mahler used as a funeral march, was welcome in its straightforward simplicity.

In the stormy drama of the finale, Marin gave the symphony a kind of operatic profile, his dramatic postures seeming to land him somewhere between a double for Richard Wagner and a lion tamer. The volume was hiked up to such a pitch as would exceed a maelstrom. While the performance was exhilarating, it showed few insights into the dimensions of mysticism that Mahler would later explore. Even so, the St Petersburg Philharmonic's surround sound in Lugano was a chance to reflect on the work's consummate power, a huge undertaking by any standard.