Several of my friends attended the Mahler Second Symphony concerts this weekend conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. We didn't consult, yet nearly all came to similar conclusions. Not that that means a bean because in art "consensus" is irrelevant: what matters is how opinions are reached, not what they are. Much more interesting, then, isn't so much what Jurowski's Mahler was like, but why it is the way it is.
Mahler's 2nd Symphony is failsafe. Everything about it works for a great experience - massed orchestra, massed choir, highly theatrical effects like off-stage trumpets filling the hall from all angles. Can't miss. Jurowski is a very good conductor (if his taste in modern music may be a little odd – and I don't mean the excellent Kurtag Stele performed on Saturday). In some repertoire he's downright wonderful. But not every conductor is able to do the same with all repertoire, any more than any of us can do everything well.
Wisely, perhaps, Jurowski has hitherto skirted around Mahler, conducting smaller, non-final works like Totenfeier, Blumine, the Adagio from the Tenth and only recently the First Symphony. It's not a bad strategy to ease into a composer's idiom gradually, so Jurowski is no fool. It took Barenboim years to get Mahler at all. But the fact is that the Big Anniversary Year 2010-2011 is looming and the commercial pressure to do Mahler is snowballing. Everyone but everyone has to do Mahler to keep up with the market whether or not they have anything to say. It's not a healthy thing, either for musicians or for audiences.
It's probably not a good thing for the composer and his music either. Will he become like the Mozart or Tchaikowsky caricatures, his face decorating chocolate boxes and his music at proms in parks, complete with fireworks?
A great deal was hanging on these concerts, so the South Bank scheduled the symphony over two consecutive nights to meet demand. Jurowski after all conducts the London Philharmonic and they need the high profile showcase for 2010-2011. If Jurowski's Mahler seems a work in progress, in some ways that's better than if he sold out completely and churned out rubbish regardless: others might not hesitate.
It's also interesting to speculate why Jurowski doesn't do great Mahler. It's not emotional. There are lots of different kinds of emotion, not all are heart on the sleeve. Bernstein's Mahler is being cranked out again big time, but his is by no means the only way to do Mahler. As Bernard Haitink said recently, conductors should not treat the composer as "free for all". Quiet, white-hot intellectual and spiritual intensity may not be so easy to "get", compared with Bernstein or Gergiev, but it's emotional too, and perhaps closer to what we know of Mahler.
Perhaps what makes Jurowski good at ballet and opera is what inhibits him in Mahler. These are different genres, different frames of mind. I loved Jurowski's Das klagende Lied in 2007. But Mahler decisively turned away from opera and cantata, and found his own voice in something quite unique. Mahler's song symphonies don't use voices as "characters" or narrative, but as extensions of the orchestral palette. With a few deft words like "Bereite dich!" he can cover specific ideas quite clearly in condensed form. Das klagende Lied is delightful because it's a tale, rather than a deep cosmic exploration. Jurowski in private doesn't lack spirituality - far from it - but he's probably more attuned to a different means of expressing it.