“Paul Lewis plays Beethoven” it said on the tickets for this London Philharmonic Orchestra concert, and indeed we witnessed a close connection between pianist and composer in a profoundly classical treatment of the Third Piano Concerto – classical even in the narrow sense of looking back to the musical manners of a Mozart concerto. Thus the opening tutti was brisk and light, more business-like than con brio. The rising scales of the first solo entry were in a similar vein and through much of this opening Allegro pianist and conductor were at one in placing the work on the cusp of Beethoven’s first and second periods, and looking back more than forward. If one was used to Op.37 being treated as a big middle-period C minor “storm and stress” piece, this was a surprise at first. But it was easy to adjust, so eloquent and perfectly articulated was the solo part, and so supportive the accompaniment. Paul Lewis was especially commanding in the cadenza, but still kept it in scale.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste © WDR | Thomas Kost
Jukka-Pekka Saraste
© WDR | Thomas Kost

The great Largo movement (the most highly developed in any concerto, averred Donald Tovey) unfolded in the same utterly absorbing way, each event in its serene progress affectingly realised. The interchanges between piano and bassoon and flute were presented as the confiding and intimate chamber music they essentially are. The rondo finale danced just as it should, even the short fugue kept rhythmically alert, and the movement’s several exotic episodes seeming almost as fresh and surprising as they doubtless did to the work’s first audience. Paul Lewis is sometimes still seen as a Beethoven specialist. He is much more than that of course, but when he plays that composer with such authority and classical rectitude, the tag might yet stick for a while. I trailed through extracts from a few CD versions later on, to see which of the most famous accounts was closest to his. The answer, probably, is Wilhelm Kempff – who was one of Paul Lewis’ heroes.

After such a modest-sized orchestra for the Beethoven, the LPO forces for Mahler's Fifth now resembled a job creation scheme, but they still played with the same precision, and when required the same chamber musical attention to detail. Jukka-Pekka Saraste is the master of this score (so dispensed with any copy of it), and kept it moving. The first movement was about as forward moving as is possible for a Trauermarsch, more flowing than funereal at times. The long lyrical passage for the cellos was not indulged, but rapturously phrased, and played with burnished tone. There was hardly any pause before the (thematically linked) second movement, acknowledging Mahler’s ‘five movements in three parts’ structure. “Mit grösster Vehemenz” reads the composer’s movement heading, and while this was vehement enough, it was not perhaps the greatest vehemence heard in this work. The arrival of the all-important chorale theme near the end was similarly done with a fine sense of arrival, even if the triumph was a little muted.

The central Scherzo was magnificently played. The first horn led the way majestically, with all the character his ebullient part needs, but his colleagues in the section and all around were just as fine. In an era when every youth orchestra attempts Maher 5, we should beware of forgetting how hard much of it is, or of ever taking such superb musicianship as the LPO displayed for granted. The strings (and harp) of course come to the fore in the famous Adagietto, a tribute to the composer’s wife. The composer provides a lot of fussy instructions every few bars in the five pages of score, but Saraste seemed to have absorbed all this and directed a performance which ebbed and flowed in the way those anxious markings – “what will happen when I am not around to conduct this?” – surely aimed at. The familiarity of this movement blinds us to its exquisite tenderness; here it sounded like the greatest love letter in all music.

The finale maintained the high standard of playing and the sense of objectivity of the earlier parts, the return of the chorale perfectly “placed”, a satisfying if not a shattering conclusion. There is a sort of spectrum of Mahler interpretation from heart-on-sleeve late romantic through to the more objective, low emotional temperature, proto-modernist Mahler. Think of it as the ‘Bernstein-to-Boulez’ scale, and Saraste is just past the midpoint towards the latter end. “Mahler 5; 72 minutes” announced the notices placed at the hall doors. Saraste needed only 67 minutes. That refusal to indulge, to realise musically what is there but not exaggerate it, can make Mahler seem a greater and more forward-looking composer, at least when played with this degree of skill and commitment.