Review: Polish National Radio, Symphony Orchestra

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AFTER conducting the premiere of his Fifth Symphony in 1904, Mahler famously said: “Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance 50 years after my death.”

We probably understand it more now, but remain a little baffled. Within in its epic proportions, something enigmatic, something perhaps cold and empty, is lurking as it transforms from despair and anger to joy and pleasure.

A suggestion persists that Mahler, against character, was attempting to write ‘absolute music’ as opposed to programmatic. The famous adagietto, though, is surely subjective and personal, and what prompted a funeral march to start the work?

Directing the symphony as it is (no interpretive insights!), the excellent Jacek Kaspszyk drew fine, rich-toned playing from the PNRSO while getting through it with lyrical beauty in exactly 70 minutes.

The opening movement had a suitably heroic demeanour, the last a not inappropriate initial Mendelssohn-ian lightness of touch, and the adagietto was despatched as a schmaltz-free love song in just under ten minutes which seems to be the present-day norm.

The work’s most rewarding movement, the so-called scherzo, with a Ländler (forerunner of the Viennese waltz) round every corner, proved a splendid orchestral showpiece.

Noriko Owawa dazzled the ear with jaw-dropping pianism in Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, but it was no mere showy display of digital dexterity. Warmth, full-bodied rhythmic pungency and subtle variations in colour prevailed throughout.

Imaginative and inventive, Lutoslawski’s Little Suite drawing on folk music themes from South Eastern Polish was a delightful discovery.

Bernard Lee