I went to the concert with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra on Friday with some pre-conceived ideas about how they should play the two works on the programme, and came away satisfied that the performance more than met expectations.

Osmo Vänskä, © Greg Helgeson
Osmo Vänskä,
© Greg Helgeson

Having heard Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 23 in A many times, played by masters of the instrument – Anda, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, Brendel, Horowitz and Kempff, to name but a few – I had high expectations for the soloist for the evening, Paul Lewis.

Currently touring the world with a recital of Schubert’s late piano works, Mr. Lewis is touted as one of Britain’s best pianists today, having won multiple Gramophone awards in the last few years. His light and nimble touch rendered his interpretation of the first and final movements of the Mozart concerto flawless. His pacing was jaunty but even and steady, accentuating the fine construction of this elegant work.

The orchestral accompaniment to Mr. Lewis, under the direction of Osmo Vänskä, was in perfect balance with the soloist, tightly grasping the flighty rhythm of this angelic work, scored for a group rather like an expanded chamber ensemble, with no timpani, trumpet or oboe. The restrained and refined tone of the strings provided a snow-white canvas on which Mr. Lewis delicately overlaid soft pastel patterns, while the flute and clarinets sprinkled embellishing daubs of lustre.

The Adagio is said to be the only composition by Mozart in F sharp minor, a key that lends itself to dark passion. Here Mr. Lewis’ facility worked against him, making him sound superficial at times and leaving doubts about whether he adequately explored the deeper sorrow embedded in the movement beyond the veneer of wistful introspection.

All in all, Paul Lewis and the Hong Kong Philharmonic were credible and competent in Mozart's fine concerto, but perhaps not sensitive enough.

To music, Mahler might be what Tolstoy or Proust is to literature. His symphonies are epic journeys that demand superior stamina and focus to undertake, and his vision of the symphony as cosmos is fully demonstrated in the Fifth. Osmo Vänskä’s ability to keep up an exaggerated and animated conducting style in this long and arduous work was a spectacle in its own right.

During the two years in which he composed his Fifth Symphony, Mahler went through some dramatic events in his own life. Serious illness brought him to a near-death experience, his job as Director of the Vienna Court Opera was satisfying, and meeting and marrying Alma Schindler would have given him plenty of joy. These events perhaps explain why the Symphony is life in reverse, starting with a death march and ending with a strong affirmation of youthful vigour. The musical equivalent of a literary philosopher, Mahler never lets up on complexity, irony and sheer scope, but the fascination of his inventive musical idiom is on full display here.

Although consisting of five movements, the Symphony is grouped into three parts. The first and second movements form the first part and explore the tragedy and horror of death. In the performance on Friday, the opening trumpet fanfare was somewhat tentative, but the rest of the orchestra quickly came to the rescue by unleashing their full force in a spine-chilling dirge. The latter part of the movement was at times overly dramatic, and the woodwinds a trifle jarring. Banker-turned-Mahler-expert Gilbert Kaplan argues that the final note of the movement, although marked sf, should be played pianissimo. Fortunately, Mr. Vänskä followed this advice, preserving the contrast between the ending of the first movement and the beginning of the next.

The second movement started with a vivid depiction of horror and chaos, conjuring up the image of a man at sea bobbing up and down in drowning waves, with the brass and strings alternating in terrifying and soothing the victim. The culmination, a triumphant march, was invigorating.

The Scherzo, forming the second part of the work, is the closest that the intense whip-cracker Mahler ever got to a sense of humour. Even then, it is more irony than fun. Said to be the longest scherzo in the repertoire, it is structurally complex and temperamentally erratic. At its core, the movement is a duel between two dances, the Ländler of the country and the waltz of high society, interspersed with passages of lyricism. The horns took full advantage of the opportunity to shine, switching skilfully from mischief to bounciness and then stridency.

In effect a serenade for strings and harp, the Adagietto is an open invitation for conductors to overindulge in sentimentality. One only has to think of the death scene in Visconti’s movie Death In Venice, in which von Aschenbach is slumped in a deck chair on the beach dying a slow death, as the young boy Tadzio points to the distance in the ocean, as if showing him the destination of his soul. Fortunately, Osmo Vänskä resisted such temptation and presented an impassioned but not mawkish account. I felt moved but not drained at the end, unlike in some other interpretations I have heard.

The final movement, a potpourri of borrowed themes from the first four movements and other sources, contained some melodies of superb grace and dignity, although sometimes sounding directionless. The clarinets and horns stood out in shaping the rustic beauty, and the vitality of the strings brought the work to an exuberant climax.

Although still much longer than Mahler’s self-proclaimed “three quarters of an hour”, Osmo Vänskä’s performance at just over 71 minutes was shorter than those of Sir John Barbirolli and Klaus Tennstedt. It was a fine showcase of the virtuosity of individual players and the maturity of the orchestra as a whole.