There have been so many Mahler Third's in the last few years, so great expectations for Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall last night. We were all in an uncommonly receptive mood.
What would they find in it? Not so much Mahler as Wagner. Mahler conceived this symphony inspired by the wide open spaces of the Salzkammergut. Obviously, not literal representation, but the idea of struggle and creative freedom is very much a part of Mahler's psyche and thus part of his music. Jurowski's Mahler 3 is very "indoors", replete with every luxury possible. Wagner in Switzerland, safe from Saxons and creditors, swathed in velvet.
The first movement is monumental for a reason. It's a blockbuster as imposing as the mountains, created to set a framework against which all other elements are heard. Hence the importance of analytical thinking, understanding why Mahler's music evolves the way it does. Jurowski, never a great Mahler conductor, dispenses with structure and goes instead for maximum orchestral impact.
Cue for luscious textures, grand sweeping gestures, the ultimate Romantic symphony,. Mahler as Tchaikovsky, perhaps. Jurowski luxuriates in gorgeousness, so this was seductive performance indeed. Although details in Mahler are important, they are always there for a purpose, not merely to fill space. He lived in fin de siècle times but was personally quite ascetic. Without architecture or ideas, Mahler isn't Mahler.
Nice details, especially the sour-noted clarinet that weaves around Petra Lang as she sings O Mensch. It's like a poisonous snake, a valid image in this song that reflects on the sufferings of mankind, thanks to apples, temptation and the Devil. Less successful was the swagger in the Scherzando, whose deliberate bumptiousness wouldn't sit well with an interpretation as civilized as this.
Jurowski dwells on detail to the extent that themes blur rather than take shape. Tempi are drawn out lovingly, but in the process the drama is lost. I don't do stopwatch but someone in the exit said he'd never heard timings so diffuse. Jurowski smiled a lot while conducting, which was a good thing, because this is Mahler's sunniest symphony.
Several times I was thrown, hearing all the right notes but wondering what symphony this might be. Where was it going? Then I realized that the key to this performance wasn't to think about Mahler as we know him now, but in terms of what Alma would have wanted us to hear him. There's a huge difference, but Alma's view is more marketable. While well played, for the most part, this performance could be enjoyed as an indulgence rather than as an insight.
It's not Jurowski's fault. He's never been a great Mahler man (with the wonderful exception of Das klagende Lied in 2007) but he's fallen for the rebranding and repackaging the Mahler year has brought. Sugar-coated Mahler sells. Jurowski's a natural opera man, a Russian specialist par excellence, so he does Mahler in much the same way,. It's lovely to listen to, but isn't necessarily the composer's idiom.
Jurowski was much more in his element with Zemlinsky's Maeterlinck Songs op 13, where highly perfumed sensuality is essential to meaning. This is a wonderful cycle but it's not heard to best advantage with a symphony like Mahler 3. Indeed, part of the problem with this Mahler 3 was that it was infused with Zemlinsky. Contemporaries they were, but extremely different musically. The Maeterlinck Songs need to be showcased on their own terms, so performance is truly committed. Perta Lang has done this repertoire so often, she can sing this well, and sit down and save herself for another hour before the Misterioso movement, but she's so good she deserves star billing, not a warm-up act.
Please see some of Jurowski's earlier Mahler HERE.
And here's Andrew Clark in the Financial Times. "Jurowski’s crisp, clinical control was such that you couldn’t help being diverted by the way he manicured this or that motif – sometimes to Mahler’s benefit, as in the Minuet’s counter-themes. But tempi were so drawn out, with every phrase held up for inspection, polish and communal admiration, that the performance suffocated under its own self-absorption."