From the youthful cheeriness of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21 in C major K467 to Mahler’s colossus Ninth Symphony – we experienced the full gamut of emotions in last night’s concert. As the tenth Dublin International Piano Competition got under way earlier yesterday, its previous winner, Nikolay Khozyainov was the soloist in tonight’s programme in order to launch the event. He was joined by former Principal Conductor of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra Gerhard Markson.

Gerhard Markson © Gerhard Markson
Gerhard Markson
© Gerhard Markson

While the programming for each half emphasised the differences manifest in the two works both in terms of style and length, both possess sublime slow movements that are among the most profound and loftiest musical expressions of human nature.

It has been two years since Khozyainov last played here, taking Dublin by storm, proving himself to be as intelligent as he was sensitive a musician and so it was with no small anticipation that I awaited his performance in Mozart’s concerto. Given his youthful disposition, he took the opening Allegro maestoso quicker than normal, letting rip at the scale passages with sparkling finger work. Markson and the NSO captured this sprightly, jaunty mood well too, imbuing the movement with the energy which the music demands. As might be expected of a young pianist emerging from the jungle of the piano competition world, Khozyainov possesses a formidable technique which allows him to toss off virtuosic passages with consummate ease. The cadenza permitted him to showcase his skill as he navigated all the complexities with the nimbleness of a Njinsky. Yet, it was in the subtlety of the brief forays into the minor sections that he was most convincing, listening intently to the orchestra and matching his tone with that of the flautist.

This same sense of serene contemplation informed his playing of the famous second movement as well. While the NSO dealt with the glorious opening theme in a somewhat prosaic fashion, Khozyainov spun an enchanting web of sound as if floating through some mystical world, peacefully contemplating the transcendental. This otherworldliness instantly gave way to the jolliness of the Allegro vivace assai. Markson made the orchestra thrill with nervous energy, a task made easier by the blistering pace set by the soloist. And while there was excellent dialogue with the orchestra and the mercurial filigree of the passagework was immaculately executed, I felt the mischievous good humour was somewhat sacrificed to the Formula 1 style tempo. Khozyainov finished with a Chopin encore which was as brilliant as it was fast.

The short first half acted as a prelude to the monumental second half of Mahler’s Symphony no. 9 in D major which takes over 80 minutes to perform, making colossal emotional and musical demands on conductor and orchestra alike. Written a year before his death in 1911, this death-haunted symphony takes a fond farewell of life before departing from it in the final movement. Markson’s intelligent and sensitive artistic vision of this behemoth was at its most satisfying in the outer slow movements where he made the music seethe with intensity. Markson and the NSO wrestled with the passionate and turbulent sections of the score of the first movement, giving it their all, a life-and-death struggle as it were. The serene moments of this movement were an oasis amid the three, increasingly violent climaxes and if at times the intonation went sour among brass and woodwind sections, and the strings sounded harsh, these peccadillos did not detract from the coruscating intensity of the playing or the sweep and trajectory Markson had envisaged for the music.

The second movement is entitled “In tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers” (in the tempo of a relaxed Ländler) and Mahler gives instructions on the score to be coarse, clumsy and saucy. Here Markson’s interpretation bordered on the cautiously ironic; as if it were not quite in good taste to indulge in some of the movement’s more sardonic elements. I felt the NSO could have revelled even more in the grotesque mockery of the third movement Rondo-Burlesque inherent amid the lively, contrapuntal texture before this frenetic danse macabre comes to a sudden end.

It is the final movement, though, which provides the sternest challenge as we are faced with our own mortality. Here lushness and simplicity vie for dominion. As the incandescent climaxes receded, the music floated into the ether. Here orchestra and conductor melded as one, each sharing the same elegiac vision of the end of life: death, not to be fought, or feared but to be accepted in peaceful resignation. Finally, the strings breathed their last few notes. And then, stillness. No one moved, the audience sat rapt in a reverent silence. A minute went by. Then, as if the spell was broken, thunderous applause.