It’s regarded as a truism to say that Bach remains Bach, no matter what instruments his music is played on, or in what idiom. But listening to the London Philharmonic playing Mahler’s ‘Bach Suite’ injected – for me at least – a smidgen of doubt.
Mahler created this suite for his debut as conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1909, and it became a hot ticket. Yet to me its opening movement – an expansion of the Overture in Bach’s second Orchestral Suite – came over like a blast from Dr Phibes. The organ which was plastered over what should have been clean and muscular textures had a quite extraordinary crudeness, and the pace at which Vladimir Jurowski took it was sluggish as treacle. The springy lightness which should characterise this movement was nowhere to be heard: this was a mere caricature of Bach. Things looked up as the suite progressed, mainly because Mahler’s tamperings were minimal, and because the organ was mercifully replaced by a ‘prepared’ piano continuo (though that instrument’s contribution was largely inaudible). Jurowski’s modish claim in the programme that this was a ‘modern remix’ was just fatuous.
More contentiously, Mahler had also made an orchestral arrangement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor Opus 95. His rationale was arresting: string quartets were ‘really only enjoyed by the performers’, and in a concert-hall the intimacy which is their purpose became automatically lost. ‘I release the expansion which lies dormant,’ he boasted to an interviewer, ‘and give the notes wings.’ This was nonsense too: the whole point about string quartets, and Beethoven’s in particular, is the heroic purity of the instrumental lines. But Jurowski and the LPO made a brave (if vain) stab at proving Mahler right.
The rest of this concert was superb, with Berg’s orchestral expansion of his own ‘Five Movements’ for string quartet, and with Shostakovich’s second violin concerto performed by the young Dutch virtuoso Janine Jansen. Jansen’s commandingly beautiful tone dignifies everything she plays, and in this austere work she dazzled as its dedicatee David Oistrakh must have done when he premiered it in 1966. She did subtle wonders in her cadenzas, at one point making two interlaced voices sound as if they emanated from two quite different instruments.