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Jurowski’s Mahler 2nd Symphony – a work in progress

Kurtág : Stele

Mahler : Symphony No 2


Chrisitianne Stotjin (mezzo), Adriana Kucerova (soprano)

Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir

Royal Festival Hall, 26th September 2009


Mahler has become box office magic. He now attracts the mass market like Mozart or Tchaikovsky, bringing in audiences who might not otherwise be interested in classical music. With the anniversary year 2010-2011 coming up, Mahler will become mass saturation.


Vladimir Jurowski is charismatic, enthusiastic and extremely talented. For someone still relatively young, he’s enjoyed tremendous success because he is a genuinely distinctive conductor. But the pressures on him to prove himself with Mahler are intense. 


In 2007, Jurowski opened the South Bank season with Mahler’s early Das klagende Lied. This was an exhilarating performance, establishing Jurowski as a force to be reckoned with. A DVD of that concert has been released by Medici TV to commemorate Jurowski’s accession as Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.


Subsequently he has conducted Mahler’s First Symphony and two orchestral particles, the Totenfeier and the Adagio from the incomplete Tenth Symphony. Therefore, a great deal was riding n this performance of the Second Symphony. Indeed, the South Bank scheduled it twice, on two consecutive nights, to meet demand.


This is a spectacular symphony, almost certain to impress. The orchestra is huge, supplemented by groups of off stage performers, two star soloists and a large choir. The music itself is inherently dramatic. The offstage trumpets and horns echo from different parts of the building to create a multi dimensional theatre of sound. Trumpets call from the heavens conversing with those on the concert platform. The large chorus singing almost sotto voce, evokes memories of the pilgrims in Tannhaüser, in reverent procession.  Mahler didn’t need to write opera. Significantly, he abandoned both Die Drei Pintos and the cantata form that is  Das klagende Lied.


Perhaps that’s why Jurowski’s Mahler is confusing. Attuned to opera principles, he understands colour and incident. Hence his careful articulation of detail. as if the Symphony were a succession of vignettes in a ballet or a narrative. Though Mahler incorporates voice into his symphonies, he uses song as an extension of the orchestral tools at his command.  He doesn’t write “roles” or “plots”. His primary action is abstract, embedded in the music. The texts hint at meanings that are more metaphysical than literal.


Attractive as Jurowski’s Mahler may be, it doesn’t seem driven by much sense of inner cohesion. Mahler’s ideas are powerful : triumph over death no less, reached through struggle. The scherzo, for example, can be a wildly muscular dance with its references to St Anthony of Padua’s Fischpredict, where the fish writhe and leap energetically, disregarding the saint’s admonitions. Here it was pleasant enough, but without the wiry energy, the sense of danger is lost.  The long pizzicato passages, for example, can evoke tension, their hollow staccato beating out the passage of time evoking many complex images. Here you could hear how the sounds were made, rather than why.


Nor is redemption gained without a struggle.  Fortunately, Christianne Stotjin sang the Urlicht with presence.  “Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein” (Mankind lies in greatest pain). She added depth and authority hitherto underplayed in this performance.


Perhaps that’s why Jurowski’s Das klagende Lied was so successful. It‘s a straightforward fairy tale with a macabre edge but little emotional depth.  Jurowski has no trouble with emotional nuance in principle: in Russian repertoire he can evoke extremes of intensity.  But there’s more to Mahler than contrasts of colour and volume.  Jurowski is much too good a conductor not to reach Mahler eventually, but the pressure of delivering on time for 2010/11 may not be in his best interests.


I chose this evening’s concert because it included a rare performance of György Kurtág’s Stele. Kurtág uses an orchestra even bigger than Mahler’s complete with grand piano, four tubas, and a range of interesting keyboards and percussion. No wonder it’s not easy to programme. Jurowski kept the orchestra together with dexterity, but this is such a beautiful work that it needed more time and space to reveal its depths.


Anne Ozorio


Anne Ozorio places the Mahler phenomenon in perspective now as the anniversary year 2010-2011 approaches, when Mahler will become "mass saturation".
This brings back memories of first tentative post-war encounters with Mahler on Bruno Walter 78s; later, hearing the symphonies live for the first time one by one - some of them in BBC Maida Vale Studio with miniscule invited audiences - because of the size of the orchestra needed, they were still considered impossibly costly to put on in public concerts.
A turning point was the LPO's UK premiere of the 5th (October 1945, Cambridge Theatre) with a fraught rehearsal followed by a triumphantly successful concert, with conductor Heinz Unger holding up the score for applause, suggesting that Mahler's time had (begun to) come...

See also http://musicweb-international.com/classRev/2000/nov00/mahler4chailly.htm [Editor]