Are Mozart and Mahler a musical match made in heaven? You would think so, given the number of pairings of Mozart piano concertos (and occasionally symphonies too) with most of the Mahler symphonies. The same predictable combination also occurs with Bruckner symphonies (even the Eighth!). Is it the desire to offer something light and uncomplicated to go with the structural and thematic complexities of a big symphony? A modest starter to go with the meaty main dish later? That is surely questionable, since Mozart played properly can result in as satisfying a plate of food as a late-Romantic symphony, and in any case why ever should this composer be thought light and uncomplicated? Be that as it may, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing under Rafael Payare with Lise de la Salle as soloist made no attempt to break with this default setting.

Rafael Payare © Henry Fair
Rafael Payare
© Henry Fair

Mahler seemed a world away from Mozart’s Jeunehomme (perhaps it might have been given the soubriquet Jeunefemme on this occasion) concerto which graced the first half. It requires a lightness of touch and evenness of line for its apparent simplicity to sound wholly natural. The temptation is to do something unusual or idiosyncratic in order to make the music sound more “interesting”. In the first movement I detected a slight impatience on the part of the soloist to move quickly on rather than to maintain the illusion of effortless flight, just as the bird that hovers above a resting position often flutters indecisively towards a range of more promising boughs on which to alight. De la Salle brings to the keyboard a range of admirable qualities, not the least of which are the clarity of her fingerwork and her crystalline tone. This concerto is exceptional in having cadenzas and extended solo passages in all three movements: here the tonal shadings in the first and the tapering-off in dynamics towards the end of the second were exquisitely realised. There was also no lack of characterisation, either in the Andantino, which points in a quite remarkable way to the darkness of the later piano concertos, or in the Rondo finale where the mood moves mercurially from the playful to the dramatically assertive. Payare had already shown in the Don Giovanni overture a capacity for picking out theatrical detail and injecting vitality into the melodic line. 

Mahler provides no metronome marks for his C sharp minor symphony though endless instructions about how it should be played. He was never entirely happy with the orchestration, spending six years after its premiere in Cologne revising details and agonising over the intrusiveness of the percussion. Had he been able to hear Payare’s realisation of this vastly complex and emotionally searing score, I suspect he would have put thoughts of further tinkering completely to rest.

If conductors are there to animate orchestras (and not just act as high priests of timekeeping), Payare is as good an exemplar as any amongst the younger generation. He energises his players, dancing, lunging, cajoling, urging them on, shaping the flow, cueing with dramatic stabbing movements. At times there was something of the lion-tamer about him. Yet nothing ever seemed effortful or against the grain, or indeed wrapped up in mere self-regard. With few exceptions, he maintained a firm overall grasp on the structural elements of this Fifth while balancing individual sections of the orchestra expertly. What more could you ask of an effective conductor in a work like this?

The best instance of Payare’s refusal to over-emote (though the whole performance was shot through with a heartfelt understanding of the passionate conflicts in the music) came in the Adagietto. As another conductor once famously said to his orchestra in rehearsal, “Nobody has died.” Payare clearly sees this movement as the love-song intended for the composer’s wife rather than as a solemn accompaniment to a funeral cortège. Coming in at just under ten minutes, it was delivered with a direct simplicity that was most affecting. If the RPO strings revealed here, as they did over wide stretches of this work, that they cannot yet command the heft and tonal resources of more illustrious ensembles, there was a compensation in their ability to play softly. The hushed stillness which preceded the ascent to the final climax was in itself quite magical.

If the strings were occasionally found wanting, the RPO wind and especially the brass revelled in their opportunities for orchestral virtuosity. From the vibrancy of the opening trumpet solo to the poised and noble horns in the central Scherzo (the longest such movement that Mahler ever wrote), all underpinned by gloriously confident trombones, there was much to savour in the playing. Mahler takes his audience from darkness and grotesquerie in the opening two movements to daybreak and sun-kissed uplands in his finale. Payare proved an inspirational guide on this complex journey.