Thursday, 2 December 2010

Mahlerkugeln Jurowski Mahler 4 LPO

The biggest casualty of this Mahler anniversary year is Mahler himself.  There's money to be made. So Mahler has been repackaged so he can be sold to the mass market. Soon we'll have Mahlerkugeln  - sugary mouthfuls with no nutritious value. You get the sugar kick and think you've consumed the composer. 

Vladimir Jurowski is a man who deserves respect because he has integrity. He's spiritual and a fantastic conductor in his core repertoire - Russians, Mozart, Romantics. So it breaks my heart to see him forced onto the Mahler bandwagon at the Royal Festival Hall. He's been wise to approach Mahler slowly, conducting smaller, non-final works like Totenfeier, Blumine, the Adagio from the Tenth and 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 now Jurowski is expected to do the full blown Mahler thing whether he's ready or not. A disappointing Mahler 2nd in September 2009 and a shapeless Mahler 3rd in September 2010. Tonight's Mahler 4th was heartbreaking. I could go into detail about what didn't work but that's not fair. The London Philharmonic Orchestra is good. They wouldn't normally  play as if feeling their way. The brass players are good, perfectly capable of Mahler's trademark incisive panache. Since the new Royal Festival Hall acoustic favours brass, I don't know why the double basses were aligned across the back of the platform,  The strings in general were generic. We know the leader can carry off the sforzando quirkiness of the Freund Hein theme. This orchestra is just too good to be "walking the part", as they say of opera singers.

The problem was lack of focus, elongated lines, slow tempi, little sense of direction or meaning. . Although Mahler's Fourth seems idyllic, it's a mistake to think it's romantic. Children starve and are massacred. What's the point of a Totentanz if it's not haunted  Freund Hein, the demon violinist, is often depicted as a grinning skeleton. The "restfulness" here is the rest of the grave  But it's not passive. Graduallly, it transforms from a kind of purgatory into heavenly transcendence. The final movement is powerful because it represents triumph over evil.  One good thing in this performance was that Christine Schäfer entered at a point when there's a hint of procession, as if she were emerging out of chaos into light. Kein' Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden. Our music isn't of this earth. The children whose voices she sings died horribly but are reborn on a better plane. (Please see my post Why greedy kids in Mahler 4)

Jurowski conducted  a wonderful Mahler Das klagende Lied  in 2008.  That's telling. For a  conductor like him, who's so good in opera and ballet, a narrative like DkL comes naturally. It exists on its own terms, without cross references to the composer's other work and without the complicated metaphysics that truly penetrating interpretation involves. Jurowski's a Buddhist, (I think), so in theory, metaphysics should be his thing, but Mahler's mindset is so idiosyncratic it's unique. Understanding is gained from insight and long experience. Much of the meaning is embedded structurally into the music, which is why an "architectural" approach often works better than straight loveliness.

Besides, why should everyone "have" to get everything every time? Jurowski probably gets bombarded with the newly-rebranded revisionist view of Mahler. It's hard to resist when all around you are clamouring for it. But I think he's intelligent and independent enough to find his own way into Mahler one day. Just not yet.

It was a mistake to programme Mahler's Fourth Symphony with Britten's Les Illuminations and Debussy Three Préludes orchestrated by Colin Matthews. Stylistically, there's too much of a leap. Christine Schäfer has done both  Les Illuminations and Das himmlische Leben so often she could probably sing them in her sleep. Yet her singing was alert, as if she was quite unperturbed by an orchestra that sounded like it was sight reading. Again, it's not their fault. It's not Jurowski's fault. It's the curse of Mahlerkugelnjahr.
LOTS more posts on Mahler, symphony by symphony


billinrio said...

I've just listened to Jurowski's provocative and tradition-challenging recording conducting the LSO in the Mahler 2nd. It is proof that your opinion about him is mistaken.

Doundou Tchil said...

I've been listening Mahler fotr more than 40 years and have heard a great deal. My opinions aren't formed lightly. You may not agree with what I say, but you cannot say I'm "mistaken". It is just a matter of opinion. Jurowski's a wonderful conductor but Mahler isn't really his forte.