Claus Peter Flor conducted the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in a compellingly narrative Mahler First Symphony and a performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 22 in E flat major K.482 which, once airborne, sparkled with energy. Between the feet of Kuala Lumpur's imposing 'twin towers', the city's Dewan Filharmonik Petronas concert hall sits just adjacent to the sleekest designer shopping mall in town. The hall's front of house is airy and bright, with sweeping staircases descending to the shops. The hall itself is all wood panels and red velvet, new but not brash, and acoustically excellent. The local publicity for this concert centred around an image of a playing card – the 'M' of spades – in which the two composers were shown as picture card reflections of each other. This neatly highlighted the parallels between the two. Biographically, both were adopted Viennese, well travelled and relatively short-lived.

Claus Peter Flor © Shawn Northcutt
Claus Peter Flor
© Shawn Northcutt

Flor's big-boned but detailed handling of the Mozart also encouraged musical comparisons between the two. Certainly, during the chirping woodwind figures of the Allegro third movement, it was hard not to think ahead to the bird calls in Mahler's symphony. The orchestra, with a 40-strong strong section, produced a full, warm sound from the outset, playing absolutely at the point of Flor's batonless conducting. The details of phrasing came across very well, as did the first movement horn solos. Austrian pianist Till Fellner danced along with easy lightness of touch, showing a strong technical facility. He played with impressive control and attentiveness to the orchestra. It took a while for the tutti orchestra and piano passages to gel perfectly – at first they remained a little earthbound, the two parties not quite in step – but later on the music flew far more easily. In the Andante, the richly coloured passages for wind gave way to some far more engaged, connected interactions between pianist and orchestra, passing semi quavers back and forth between woodwind and Fellner's left hand. The third movement's lively wind solos were superbly handled by principal flute and bassoon, dancing around the piano line with enormous grace. Another wonderfully charming moment came with the horn broken chord accompaniment to the piano runs. The conductor kept a very close grip of the reins, closely shaping phrasing and dynamics with large, fluid gestures. The result was a joy to behold.

Till Fellner © Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra
Till Fellner
© Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra

Flor's conducting in Mahler's Symphony no. 1 in D major showed fullest concern for the work's architecture, making for a vivid depiction of the Wayfarer's journey. The morning scene opened with good control and intonation in string harmonics and woodwind, though the atmosphere might have been a little more dewy and misty. The offstage trumpet fanfares were exceptionally well placed in terms of spatial separation and ensemble with the onstage playing. The Wayfarer set out with a subtle but effective hesitation in the cello and trumpet theme, as if looking around and limbering up. A greater sense of lyricism dawned, leading to a vigorous climax just before the repeat. The later slow passage was shrouded in greater mystery than the opening, with theatrical string portamento among other strong effects. There was thus a dramatic sense of anticipation ahead of the movement's conclusion, which exploded at a brisk pace. A small degree of momentum was lost in the final pages, the strings perhaps a little underpowered, but the low brass did an admirable job in the engine room.

The Ländler carried a good spring in its step, with lower strings muscular and suitably rustic, and the 'bells-up' wind effects heartily embraced. The Trio was strongly characterised, though occasionally it bordered on being overly mannered with idiosyncratic stretching of certain phrases. The return to the first theme was abrupt and even more lively than first time round.

The woodwinds in the Klezmer band passages of the third movement could have been a little more exotic, but the Frère Jacques theme was very well played from its inception as a double bass solo. A clean, transparent texture allowed the layers of the canon to be heard clearly. The later major key passage (under the Linden tree) was magically light and delicate, thanks to some fine first violin playing. Before the return of the march, the deathly harp solo was movingly desolate.

The finale was launched with a hellish shriek, the entry of the second timpani like cannon fire. The low brass excelled throughout the movement, making for a violent outburst, though occasionally dwarfing the strings in the louder moments. The first appearance of the climactic theme was imbued with a beautiful sense of wonder by Flor's pacing and the quiet wind playing. He then made the most of the ensuing quiet passage, nodding back to the tragedy of the third movement, setting up a real need for a big finish. The brass duly obliged (their solo fanfare here was louder than I have ever heard it!), charging ahead with great energy. Flor pulled the tempo back sharply for a dignified final account of the theme, the brass still hugely powerful. Although the final two bars of fortissimo percussion roll were oddly dashed through in a fraction of the time they call for, it didn't prevent the symphony coming to a fitting and coherent conclusion.