Stand-in Matthew Coorey Impresses in Finale of Mahler’s Ninth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, Mahler:  Lisa Batiashvili (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Matthew Coorey (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 28.3.2012 (GD)

Mozart Violin Concerto in G major, K216 No.3
Symphony No 9 in D

This concert was to have been conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin. But he had to cancel due to a bout of gastric flu. At very short notice the young Australian conductor Matthew Coorey stood in for Nezet-Seguin.

The concert opened with a spirited rendition of Mozart’s G major Violin Concerto in which Miss Batiashvili both directed the orchestra and played the violin part. The opening allegro was a real allegro and most of the time Batiashvili obtained stylish playing from the LPO. But on many occasions I felt the need for sharper accents especially at the quasi development section where  the strings play syncopated staccato descending/ascending figurations. And why here, and indeed throughout the concerto, did not Miss Batiashvili deploy antiphonal violins? I would have thought that as a violin virtuoso herself she would have understood the greater clarity thereby achieved. Batiashvili wisely played  the adagio with plenty of movement remembering, of course, that a Mozart adagio is not the same as an adagio by a later Romantic composer. The beautiful flute melody in and around G major was particularly well balanced and eloquent.  The Rondo – Allegro finale was a delight, although I did notice one or two passages in the accompanying bass-line which tended to plod.

Most of Miss Batiashveli’s solo contributions were of a high standard. But is her consistent use of violin vibrato (also in the orchestra) in accord with Mozart’s idiom?  We certainly know both from the violins Mozart himself played, and remarks he makes in various letters, that the violin sound Mozart knew and wrote for was nowhere near the rather mannered vibrato style heard tonight, which was really more suited to 19th century violin repertoire. One only has to hear  Andrew Manze using a period violin and  technique with his period orchestra to realise how much more agile and idiomatic Manze makes the music sound.

There were many admirable qualities in this rendition of Mahler’s most developed symphony, which many claim to be his ‘greatest’ work. Initially Coorey managed to gauge well the opening pulse on which the whole movement is formed. The pulse is structured around falling seconds in the violins (with a motive linked to the falling figure from Beethoven’s ‘Les Adieux’ piano sonata) initiating a dialectic between D major and D minor. Coorey integrated and developed this ‘tempo primo’ pulse impressively with a shattering tutti crescendo climax, but by the time we reached the the lyrical D major, initiating the complex and extended development sections, Coorey slowed down and lingered, and had to speed up at the more concerted and dramatic sections. And I would have welcomed less vibrato especially in the strings.  The conductor imposed more ritardandi as the movement unfolded,  and as a result the music did not cohere as it should. This was made more frustrating by the fact that the great D minor climax with fff trombones and timpani pounding out the opening figure was impressively delivered. For Alban Berg this was a premonition of the composer’s death., and this is compounded  by the following ghostly cortege also based around the opening motive. This cortege sequence didn’t really have much effect tonight, sounding like a run-through, but the concluding cadenza dialogue between flute and horn was well balanced, and well played.

The two middle movements did not really register the necessary weight and characterisation they require if they are to structurally cohere with the great opening movement, and the concluding adagio. The ‘heavy’, ‘clumsy’, even ‘crude’ inflections Mahler asks for in the second movement ‘Ländler’were quite well inflected but didn’t register the full irony of the music, as heard, for example, with Mahler students like Bruno Walter and Klemperer. And in the mock military band intonations in the second waltz some of the irony and parody came out, but not enough. Moreover there were moments of rough ensemble, especially in the woodwind.  The ‘sehr trotzig’ (meaning very defiantly, insolently – even angrily) of the third movement ‘Rondo Burlesque’, didn’t really sound tonight, although Coorey obtained some quite accurate playing in the mock contrapuntal sequences. But the D major contrast just before the coda, where Mahler introduces the main theme of the concluding adagio, lost much of its lyrical, contrasting effect by being dragged and sounding contrived, thus robbing the movement of its well integrated structural coherence.

The great concluding adagio was in a different order of excellence. Here there was no lingering or dragging. Coorley, unlike many famous Mahler conductors, understands that Mahler wants a great adagio finale, but also one which is ‘restrained’. There was an absolute minimum of vibrato here and the  first D flat major climax was perfectly timed, as was the final climax with  its heroic D major variant in the horns  of the opening theme (with particularly fine horn playing here). The spectral C sharp minor re-working of the opening theme in the bass register with ghostly emanations intoned in the high   strings was well integrated. The concluding ‘Adagissimo’ leading to the long process of gradual fragmentation was particularly impressive, with its sustained pp. The long falling notes just before the coda sounded eloquently stoical, with never a note of sentimentality. The whole movement lasted just over 24 minutes, roughly the same timing as in the great Klemperer recording. Throughout this movement the LPO’s playing was impressively committed. Again I would have preferred antiphonal violins, but with conducting, playing of this excellence this is no more than a quibble. I shall certainly be looking out for more from Mr Coorey. Despite shortcomings in the other movements, this was an impressive Mahler 9. The excellent final adagio alone made this concert a musical event that I shall remember long into the future.

Geoff Diggines