Mahler is The Biggest Party in Town, and everyone wants a grab at the party bag. Because he's been so effectively rebranded he's become a surefire hit favourite, like Tchaikovsky and Mozart. Maybe that's good for the music, but maybe not. What does London's music flagship, the South Bank, have on offer?
Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra kick off the South Bank Mahler 2010/11 season with Mahler's Third Symphony. It's likely to be starry, which is apt, since this is Mahler's sunniest symphony (though there is dark humour in it) It's being paired with Zemlinsky's Maeterlinck Songs (Petra Lang) which are lovely, but not perhaps familiar to the kind of audiences that turn out for stellar events. Quite possibly it will divert attention from the symphony. In any case, why not Mahler songs of the same period ? Plenty of those later in the season, and Lang has them in her repertoire.
On 1st December, another blockbuster programme, matching Mahler's Fourth Symphony with Britten's Les Illuminations. Both are massive tours de force for high voice, so it's hard to imagine any single performer singing both in one evening, and may stretch even one as experienced as Christine Schäfer. They divide focus, so each may not be heard to best advantage. Again, why not match the symphony with relevant songs? Das irdische Leben, for example, which is a mirror image of Das himmlische Leben.(the finale of Mahler 4). Together they'd be much more sensitive to Mahler's mindset. And they're ideal for Schäfer's light, child-like purity. Although she's done a good Les Illuminations in the past, it's not necessarily her forte (unlike Mahler 4 which could have been written for her).
Three days later, Jurowski conducts Mahler's First Symphony, with Blumine, the extra movement the conductor discarded. It's a nice piece, so you can see the attraction. But in performance it can drag (which is why Mahler changed his mind). Perhaps Jurowski will make a case for it, but if he doesn't, it's still an interesting curiosity. This time it's paired with Beethoven Piano Concerto no 4 (Grimaud) which is different enough (though has similarities) to work well.
Mahler's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies follow in January. Jaap van Zweden conducts Mahler 6 first, then Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the 5th. Nézet-Séguin conducts Das Lied von der Erde in February (Sarah Connolly and Toby Spence). Neither conductor has made a name in Mahler, but these should be interesting as both are still very young, fresh and lively.
Jurowski's conducting the full three movement Das klagende Lied on 29th January. (Diener, Stotijn, Koenig, Purves) which should be good, as Jurowski's Mahler tends towards the high Romantic, which in this early work is quite approproate.
I'm already booked for Christoph Eschenbach's Mahler Ninth in February 2011, because Eschenbach's approach is distinctive. Don't expect Bernsteinesque neurotic sentiment. Eschenbach, who's lived through more real tragedy than most of us, penetrates more deeply. This won't be a weepie, but all the more valid for that. It's paired with Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Christopher Maltman) which is a great idea: Mahler setting off as a young hopeful, Mahler later in life, having learned what the world can be like.
The series is quite completist, in the sense that it includes minor works like Mahler's transcriptions of Bach and Beethoven, but oddly enough no Second Symphony, Seventh or Tenth. This is better, musically, than doing a cycle for the sake of doing a cycle. Jurowski and the LPO should be respected for having the integrity of avoiding the commercial trap.
Still, it's a worry that the songs are spread out so thinly. Kindertotenlieder is placed with Brahms and Mendelssohn Reformation. Mahler's songs are integral to all his work. In a series like this, aimed at the general listener, it would have been wise to structure the programmes so they have greater effect. As for the Philharmonia, they did their big Mahler season last year with Salonen. This year they're doing it with Lorin Maazel......no comment. See hear for an outstanding Mahler cycle.