Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall – Rafael Payare conducts Mozart & Mahler – Lise de la Salle plays K271

Don Giovanni, K527 – Overture
Piano Concerto No.9 in E-flat, K271
Symphony No.5 in C-sharp minor

Lise de la Salle (piano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Rafael Payare

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 5 March, 2019
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Rafael PayarePhotograph: Henry FairDedicated to the memory of André Previn, the RPO’s Music Director from 1985 to 1992 who died last week, the Overture was particularly apt given Shrove Tuesday’s origins lie in the need for repentance and, in the opera, Don Giovanni refuses the Commendatore’s repeated injunctions “Pentiti” before being dragged down to Hell. Rafael Payare is a protégé of the late Lorin Maazel with whom he shares an excellent stick technique, although Don Giovanni opened less than promisingly – not as momentous as it can be and with some slightly raucous brass – but soon settled and there was some notably tidy string-playing.

The concert was billed as a journey from darkness to light, presumably on account of the Mahler. However, the same could be said of K271, its Andantino’s melancholic minor-key pathos is immediately followed by a joyous Finale, which inhabits the Elysian Fields. One can take the Concerto at face-value as straightforward display, the young Mozart seizing every opportunity to dazzle, or alternatively as the first precursor to the enhanced expressive world of his later works. I tend to the latter.

Whichever view one takes, one slight fluff in the first movement aside, Lise de la Salle played it quite beautifully, clean ornaments, minimum pedalling and a better sense of Classical style than many pianists. The outer movements fizzed along at high speed (well, the Finale is marked Presto). However, in the central one and the last’s slow interlude, rather than time standing still it felt as though there were greater depths to be plumbed.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is a difficult work to bring off. Its tripartite structure with the first two movements linked, the extended central Ländler standing alone and the odd joining of the heartfelt Adagietto with the exuberant Finale can seem overlong so that when the apotheosis arrives one sometimes heaves a sigh of relief. Not here. There was tangible commitment throughout from the RPO, with real weight to the strings: seldom does one hear the lower instruments dig so deep or the violas so present in the mix. And whatever reservations one might have about Payare’s interpretative choices – for example, although the second section of the opening funeral march is marked Plötzlich schneller (Suddenly quicker) it felt too abrupt – there was an irresistible momentum throughout which made light of the work’s longueurs; one was swept along at moments which sometimes seem too much of a good thing, and special mention for the confident horn solos by Christopher Gough and John Roberts’s plangent oboe contributions, part of a team effort, conviction in abundance.

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