This Philharmonia Orchestra programme more or less bookended the 19th century, with a Beethoven concerto from 1800 and a Mahler Symphony from 1902. But here they sounded worlds, not just a century, apart. The orchestra for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major occupied about a quarter of the platform, while Mahler’s Fifth Symphony doubled the string complement and added a great deal of everything else, and left little platform space for the extra percussionists to bash three pairs of large cymbals at the end. But the essential difference was in the musical character of these pieces in relation to their time. The Beethoven in many ways looks back, as if in tribute to the Viennese classical style of the Mozart concerto, despite bold harmonic audacities. The Mahler looks forward, standing on the threshold of Viennese modernism. Mahler said after the first performance "Nobody understood it – I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death."

Jakub Hrůša © V Krsul
Jakub Hrůša
© V Krsul

The soloist in the concerto was Piotr Anderszewski, who has made a much-praised recording, on which he also conducted. Since he rations his recordings to pieces on which he feels he has something to say, expectations were high. In his hands the concerto came across as the work of a young man revelling in his own powers of invention, which is just what it is. It was always kept in scale, with little of the defiant rhetoric we associate with the composer’s middle period. Indeed Jakub Hrůša’s steady direction of the opening tutti might at times have made a bit more of its Allegro con brio marking, but the orchestral playing was certainly alert, and Anderszewski responded to it in chamber musical fashion. His delicate touch and lyrical poise in the Largo were outstanding, giving the movement a singular grace. The Rondo finale was a true Allegro scherzando, each episode making its mark through the soloist’s impeccable phrasing and crisp articulation, even in the crossed-hands passage. The unusual choice of encore was the rather elusive Andante from the second series of Janáček’s cycle On an Overgrown Path. Perhaps it was a link to the world of Mahler, who died the year it appeared.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, with its violent switches of mood, is still a big test for any conductor. It was a test that Jakub Hrůša passed very impressively. After a momentous opening led by Principal Trumpet Jason Evans, who had an outstanding evening, the funeral march had a very measured tread, and with some effective expressive nudges to the phrasing. But when the section marked ‘Wild’ was reached, it burst forth with great vehemence. These contrasts are sometimes downplayed in a quest for integration, holding the piece together. But it is equally valid, maybe more so, to highlight these extremes. The second movement too was notable for taking Mahler’s marking of “Stormily agitated, with the greatest vehemence”, at its face value.

Yet Hrůša also relished the many oases of calm in the work, and got the utmost from them. The long and lovely cello tune in the middle of the second movement was encouraged to bloom, and the players responded with fine tone and nuance. The slow waltz mostly for strings in the third movement, was similarly embraced without being indulged, and sounded very Viennese as a result. That third movement features an obbligato horn almost throughout, and Principal Horn Timothy Ellis was equal to its considerable demands. He, and everyone else bar the strings and one harp, get a rest in the fourth movement Adagietto. There is still some controversy about the timing for this piece. Mahler’s piano roll and Mengelberg’s recording suggest just under 8 minutes; some famous Mahler discs, such as those of Karajan and Abbado, drag it out beyond 12 minutes. Hrůša’s tempo steered a middle way, taking exactly 10 minutes. But it still flowed, even overflowed, with tender expression, with much detail coaxed from the violins especially.

The finale rarely fails, and here again it set the seal on a far from routine Mahler Five, from a young conductor with quite an individual view of this now ubiquitous work. How he prepared it I can’t imagine. The previous evening I was in the Royal Opera House for the new production of Carmen. The excellent conductor was a house debutant - Jakub Hrůša. How do you prepare a new production at a major opera house, then stroll across the Thames to lead a fine and distinctive Mahler Five? A critic friend of mine said a year or two back that “there were whispers about his being on the verge of greatness”. I don’t know about that, but I am sure that Hrůša is one of the few of his generation to watch in concert hall as well as opera house.