It was announced shortly before tonight's concert that the advertised conductor, the London Philharmonic's Principal Guest Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, was indisposed. In a programme which included Mahler's enormous Symphony no. 9, it was no small thing for Australian conductor Matthew Coorey to take over at short notice. Nézet-Séguin's misfortune also provided the occasion for Lisa Batiashvili to show her quality as a musician, as she elected to lead the orchestra from the violin in Mozart's Violin Concerto no. 3 in G.

Lisa Batiashvili © Anja Frers and Deutsche Grammophon
Lisa Batiashvili
© Anja Frers and Deutsche Grammophon

Indeed, after the closing strains of Mahler's symphony had dissipated in the night air, I eventually remembered that before all that there had been some rather lovely Mozart. The lack of a conductor gave the piece a chambery feel, and had all the players listening to each other. Batiashvili tapped into her background in quartet playing, which helped her to articulate the essential dynamic of any concerto: the interplay between solo and orchestra. She was alive to the musical impulses of the piece, communicating them with the orchestra but also sharing them with us, with characterful phrasing and effortless virtuosity. This was a coherent vision of the piece – even if the rather Romantic approach to the middle movement may not have been to all tastes – and it is hard to imagine that any conductor could have much improved upon it.

My palette was whetted for more, but upon returning from the interval the orchestra had swelled to more than double its previous size, ready to do battle with Mahler's last (completed) symphonic testament. For the most part valedictory in character, it shares with his other final works the constant presence of death, here mostly personified by the brass. Dense in musical material, the first movement's first minute sews most of the motifs that will dominate the four-movement structure, most especially that of the falling second, Mahler's 'Lebwohl' or 'leave-taking' motif. So it is in part a conductor's task to make the motivic pattern clear to the listener, whilst maintaining the often dense texture of the music.

Matthew Coorey is well qualified to deputise for Nézet-Séguin, having made quite a name for himself in the last ten years with a number of orchestras in the UK and abroad. But Mahler's Ninth is epic in length and intricately detailed: the conductor must be formidably prepared, the orchestra well-rehearsed. It was unsurprising, therefore, that there were no great revelations in tonight's reading. For much of the time Coorey focused on keeping things together, though he was at several moments able to bring considerable warmth and humour.

The first movement, described as alternating 'regret' and 'brusque retorts' in the provided notes, spoke to me more of warm nostalgia alternating with the increasing awareness of the shadow of death. The brass loomed wonderfully ominously, and spat out their syncopated theme in full knowledge of their role as death's harbingers, and these contrasting sections were balanced by some lovely string playing. Cooper seemed most comfortable in the second movement, relishing the opportunity for a humorous flourish here and there, but only in places did it have the manic edge which the best interpretations of this parody of a dance movement possess. Mahler instructs 'somewhat clumsy and very rough', and the performance lacked the bite or abandon that this direction suggests. The third movement had a sense of barely-controlled chaos, but the fugue was well-marshalled and the reflective middle episode appropriately contrasting.

The long finale had some lovely moments, most connected with fine solo work, but as it wound down and the all-important silences were left to hang, the effect was rather spoiled by hall noises, and the spell had been broken before the music had taken its final, gasping breaths. Given the circumstances, therefore, it would not be fair to judge either Coorey or the fine players of the LPO on this performance, which understandably fell slightly short of what I'm sure both are capable of delivering.

***11