When I read that Paul Lewis is the current Artist in Residence for the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, my heart leapt. I first heard him a few years ago, in a solo recital which included the last Beethoven piano sonata, with its transcendental variations, and I knew that he was a pianist of my dreams, whose technical ability is never on display for its own sake, but always in the entirely un-egotistical service of the essence of the music he plays. Coming to prominence first, not as a winner of this or that piano steeplechase, but as a chamber musician, his playing doesn’t dazzle; it invites, persuades, and is imbued with such a deep desire that his listeners share his profound experience of the poetry at the core of the music he plays.

Paul Lewis with the QSO. Photograph supplied

Last night he joined the QSO in the last Mozart piano concerto, the B flat, K.595. This is not a flashy piece, like the “Coronation”, nor gut-wrenching like the C minor concerto, but a subtle, reflective meditation on the ordinariness of things and the not-so-ordinary behind them. The themes come with an innocence that made complete sense of the programming, which paired this concerto with Mahler’s most innocent symphony, the fourth; and while perhaps one hears the rondo theme in the finale of K.595 once too often, what happens to the many themes of the first movement as they flit through the shadows of his most recently composed opera, Così Fan Tutte is jaw-dropping. (The subject of Così is of course also to do with exposing what lies behind façades of innocence.)

Lewis played this remarkable concerto as a dialogue between the piano and the orchestra, in fact, as chamber music, the orchestra being suitably reduced. The conductor Daniel Blendulf was entirely in harmony with this approach, shaping the lines of the well-rehearsed orchestra exactly to match the subtlety and poetry of Lewis’s playing. The string playing especially was wonderful – again, nothing flashy, but gorgeously blended, shaped, and in tune, exhibiting a unanimity of purpose rarely experienced in performances of Mozart concertos (“after all, they’ve played it dozens of times”). When Lewis, at the end of the performance, got up and embraced the conductor, it felt like a simple affirmation of this unanimity.

The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Mahler’s most chamber-music-like symphony, the fourth. This work certainly, however, allowed the virtuosity of several players and sections to have free rein. Principal horn player Malcolm Stewart’s honey-coloured sound in the second movement; Vivienne Brooke’s plangent cor anglais solos in the third; Warwick Adeney’s brilliantly abandoned playing of the scordatura violin in the second movement; the entire percussion section in the outer movements; the passionate eloquence of the cello section, led by David Lale, in the slow movement – these stand out among many highlights. In the fourth movement the orchestra was joined by the young Queensland soprano Morgan England-Jones, who sang the song that is the epitome of child-like innocence, The Heavenly Life, from which this concert got its title. Though sometimes a little lost in the lower registers, her voice has a pleasing purity which suited this text, a child’s vision of what it must be like in heaven – lots of delicious things to eat, where (to my mind slightly disturbingly) Herod is the butcher (having presumably been forgiven for killing all those babies) and St Martha is the cook. The subject of this song, the shadowed innocence of childhood, reflected not only the preceding movements of the symphony, but indeed the entire concert.

Daniel Blendulf, Paul Lewis and the QSO. Photograph supplied

Blendulf’s reading of this great work was interesting, though possibly not to everybody’s taste. He conducted without any rubato, apart from that which is specifically indicated in the score. For example, Mahler writes “poco. rit.” (the smallest slowing down) after the cow-bells of the beginning of the first movement, and so that is exactly what Blendulf did. But a contemporary of Mahler’s, the conductor Mengelberg, who Mahler admired greatly, interpreted this ritardando as a foreshadowing of the really drawn-out slowing down that precedes the return of the main theme later in the movement. Further, Blendulf didn’t slow down at all in the coda of the slow movement, which therefore didn’t have that sense of bottomless introspection which I love to feel at that point. His was a more innocent reading, I might say, but it seemed occasionally to miss some of the disturbing complexities of Mahler’s relationship with his own childhood, which was a life-long concern for him.

Blendulf’s taut, springy, agile direction encouraged a treble-dominated sound from the orchestra which verged on the uncomfortably harsh. I’m sure this was deliberate, and I think it stands as a valid interpretation – here those disturbing complexities did surface. The performance was admirably clear, and I heard foreshadowings of later music by Mahler in places I’d never heard them before. I’d noticed the premonition of the close of Das Lied von der Erde in the third movement, but not the foreshadowing of the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, nor the way the climax of the first movement, delivered with shattering power in this performance, wants to break into the first two movements of the Fifth, with the fateful rhythm of the opening, and the tortured harmonies of the next movement.

The whole concert, which is the first in the QSO’s 2019 season, was a great advertisement for the orchestra. Brisbane is fortunate to have them as its flagship orchestra, and although they have been through some difficult times, the orchestra now has the feeling of having real excellence within its grasp. I hope the city supports it as well as it did last night, with full houses every night. Brisbanites will also have the opportunity to hear Lewis several times later in the year, both with the QSO and in recital. Not to be missed.