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 PROM 69 – Mendelssohn and Mahler: Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conductor (Riccardo Chailly) Piano (Saleem Abboud Ashkar) Royal Albert Hall. London 7.9.2009 (GD)

: Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op 25
: Symphony No. 10 (performing version by Deryck Cooke)

Among Mahlerians opinions are still divided as to the efficacy of Cooke's 'completion' of Mahler's 10th. After  virtually completing the first movement and part of the second, Mahler left only sketches, interrupting work on the score in order to complete the 9th Symphony for performance. The Mahler disciple Klemperer was rather contemptuous and dismissive of Cooke's effort and  Mahler conductors of the stature of Boulez, Abbado and Solti, while less vocal than Klemperer, have steered clear from the work; although Abbado and others have performed the first movement Adagio. But I would argue that Cooke had a good case. Mahler's work on the symphony provided a thematic line throughout, and at least 90% of the counterpoint and harmonic structure are genuine Mahler, albeit in basic form. Cooke's completion (with the aid of composers Berthold Goldscmidt and brothers Colin and David Matthews) is important in revealing a work in which Mahler was obviously entering new harmonic territory where the complexity of counterpoint exceeds even the 9th Symphony.

I can't imagine greater advocates for Mahler's 10th (and Cooke's completion) than Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Chailly took the opening adagio at a slow pace but always ensured an underlying, oscillating pulse. The thematic relations with Wagner's 'Parsifal', especially the Act Three prelude, with its darkly ethereal mood, were more resonant than usual tonight. And the great outburst in A flat minor (punctuated in the brass) and leading to the ominous nine-note dissonant chord, were delivered as dramatically and compellingly as I can remember hearing while at the same time, never disrupting the arched contour of the movement.

Chailly made us aware of the fantastic dynamic/tonal contrast in the first scherzo and the strangely haunting (and plangent) B flat minor  third movement which Mahler entitled  'Purgatorio oder Inferno', where he quotes not only from Parsifal again, but also from the 'Todesverkundigung' (the Death Annunciation from Act two of Wagner's 'Die  Walkure'.) This theme is given out in a parodied brass chorale in A flat minor and is said to represent the composer's anguish, and  probably the onset of his own death, after   discovering that his wife Alma was having an affair with the architect Walter Gropius.

Chailly took great care to ensure that E minor fourth movement's anguished waltz acted as a prelude, thematically and structurally to the last movement. And here, in that long finale, Chailly maintained a trenchant underlying  pulse which in no way detracted from the movement's array of harmonic/tonal contrasts.. The last surging F sharp minor climax, with incredible unity and depth of tone from the Leipzig orchestra, especially the string section,  never sounded imposed or superficial, as it sometimes can. Instead, it emerged 'organically' from the movement's (indeed the whole symphony's) harmonic depths. This is the mark of a great conductor; the kind organic grasp we hear with older giants such as Klemperer and Fürtwangler and, by all accounts, from Mahler himself as a conductor.

There was one textual oddity which after consulting at least three editions of the score I could not fathom. The finale begins with a wonderfully effective (almost uncanny, 'unheimlich') loud, muffled single stoke on the bass drum, repeated well into the first part of of the movement. It is not marked anything like the ffff register in which it was delivered tonight. It should have a more ominous f to ff tone to it, with a muffled timbre. Also tonight's percussionist did not give us a 'single' bass drum stroke but played it as a triplet figuration with two quasi crescendo strokes preceding the loud stroke in rhythmic sequence. This must have been Chailly's own piece of instumental innovation, and it was certainly arresting, filling the Albert hall with its baleful tone of assault but I am not sure that I prefer it to the single stroke, which seems more direct and less operatic. Even so, this is more a personal quibble since Mahler himself is known to have continually added to and modified   his works. Moreover in a work not actually completed by the composer an element of improvisation is, perhaps, inevitable. 

The concert opened with a resilient and lively rendition of Mendelssohn's delightful first piano concerto, with Abboud Ashkar and Chailly playing in elegant and engaging  accord. It made a fitting and contrasting prelude to the Mahler and certainly deserves to be heard more often in concert, together with Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No 2. 

Geoff Diggines


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