A mere 100 years separate the Vienna of Mozart’s last years from the Vienna of Mahler’s early career, but so much has happened musically, that they seem to belong to very different worlds. Tonight’s first Viennese offering was Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 27 in B flat major K595, played by the young British pianist, Benjamin Grosvenor, making his Kennedy Center debut. This concerto, completed in 1791, early in the year of his death, is Mozart’s final statement for this much-loved instrument. It would be tempting – and critics have sometimes tried – to read into the work premonitions of his impending death, but this is stuff and nonsense. What there is, however, is plenteous evidence of a mature style, and even a prefigurement of a Romantic turn, in its cultivation of mellow moods and sudden harmonic turns.  

Grosvenor’s performance tonight was intimate, mild and introverted, qualities that spoke both for and against the whole. His playing was certainly refined throughout: it was as if he was, after a fashion of speaking, sheltering his notes from crude contact with the outside world. Given this level of introversion, however, it took some time for both orchestra and soloist to enter into any kind of relationship. The orchestral opening was less than perfectly poised and the central section, in the remotely related key of B minor, allows for a more exploratory tone and evocation of feeling than Grosvenor mustered.

Grosvenor’s pure style was more comfortably matched with the gloriously simple melody which forms the main theme in the second movement. But the brass entry before the tutti cut across this in rather clunky fashion. In the finale, Grosvenor exhibited a kind of contained liveliness, and there was a greater sense of dynamic between him and the orchestra. This was a careful if rather timid interpretation which would have suited a salon more than a concert hall.

Mahler was not a man who dreamt small dreams. On the contrary. “To write a symphony means, to me, to construct a world,” he wrote, and this sincere quest to compose truly existential music is behind his gigantic symphonic oeuvres. The first, composed between 1885-88, was, in reflecting his life story to date, (though only in his mid 20s) to be “something of which the world has never heard the like before.”

Nikolaj Znaider who performed last week here as violin soloist was now filling his other role, that of conductor, completing his two week residency with the NSO. He has been quite magnificently successful and tonight his Mahler was impressively polished. Does he conduct as a violinist? Certainly, in some lyrical passages, notably in the fourth movement, he turned to his desks of violinists, his hand in vibrato movement, a delicate injunction for them to carress the sound. As he said himself in a recent interview in The Washington Post, “I can get away with getting into the string players’ business, and they accept it.” The strings are the lyrical core of the orchestra, and who better than he to bring this out?

For the rest, Znaider makes for that old-world but ever classic type of conductor: supremely urbane and well-mannered, his musicianship a refined pursuit of the finer details, not an exercise in emotional self-indulgence. Not one to ‘sweat blood and tears’, not even for a Mahler often wallowing in one crisis or another, the strengths of his interpretations were those passages which were lyrical and those which were dance-like. And there is much of both. This courtier-conductor was very much at ease – and caused the orchestra to be so – in the folkish playfulness of the main them in the first movement, in the rollicking triple rhythm of the Ländler in the second (all those upper-class Viennese pretending to wear hob-nail boots) and in the playful and poignant themes of the third movement.

As regards the contrasting moods, the quiet eeriness and the breakthroughs of passionate vehemence, Znaider had the happy knack of letting them happen around him. Gesturally, one could see that he became less active, permitting rather than cultivating the vulgarity of an fff. I found the restraint quite effective, and in any case, in keeping with his whole musical persona. Whilst he presided calmly, the orchestra unleashed themselves when required: there were vamped up crescendos, full storm-force brass, and percussion with serious intent to harm. Then, when the moment required, Znaider cut them off, brought them in line, reined them in. There was a crisp discipline, unusual in Mahlerian interpretations, and particularly noticeable (and praiseworthy) at the ends of the movements. The last passage in the last movement was quite supremely exciting and he thus ends his two-weeks residency in DC on a very high note indeed.