At last, an imaginative response to the Mahler anniversary. The problem with finding new ideas for the ongoing two-year Mahler celebrations – this year the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, next year the centenary of his death – is that Mahler’s output is dominated by a small number of very large works, almost all of them well known.
The one area that has been ignored is Mahler the editor and arranger. What did he really make of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony? Some people may be aware that Mahler produced a performing version, but few will have heard it, and it is easy to assume it must live up to the satirical cartoon where Mahler is depicted pumping up the orchestra with hammer, anvil and cowbells.
This concert gave us an opportunity to find out for ourselves. Well done to Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, not just for having the idea but also following it through so completely. The first thing to note is that the orchestra was huge – six horns, 10 double basses and everything else in proportion – but, unlike Thomas Beecham, Mahler did not add extra instruments for novelty’s sake. His arrangement is fairly modest, occasionally throwing in piping wind instruments or triumphal trumpets to drive a point home.
Where Saturday’s performance scored was that Jurowski was also trying to realise Mahler’s detailed markings of tempo and phrasing, presumably as marked in his conductor’s score. The music would slow to a halt, jerk forwards, take a sudden breath, slow again: it is hard to imagine a style more foreign to Jurowski, the strict classical stylist, and he was hard pushed to make the result sound natural. Still, whatever one might think of Mahler’s tamperings, this was a powerful performance of the “Eroica” and very well played.
It had been preceded by another composer’s response to Beethoven, the classical giant. Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 2 prompted rather different ideas from Leif Ove Andsnes, the soloist, and Jurowski – Andsnes weighty and trenchant, if not very individual, while Jurowski, as always, was looking for clarity and precision – but by the time they reached the finale, the interplay was fascinating. How brilliantly every orchestral detail comes across whenever Jurowski is in charge.