Mahler
Symphony No.3
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)

Women’s Chorus of the Vienna Singverein
Vienna Boys’ Choir

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Pierre Boulez


Recorded in February 2001 in the Grosser Saal of the Musikverein, Vienna
CD No: DG 474 298-2 (2 SACDs; playable on CD and SACD machines)
Duration:
Reviewed: September 2003
Pierre Boulez’s Mahler cycle for DG has been appearing in piecemeal fashion since 1995 when Symphony No.6 with the Vienna Philharmonic was released. The same orchestra also recorded the Fifth Symphony, while others have been recorded in Cleveland and Chicago. Boulez returns to Vienna for the most extended – duration-wise – of Mahler’s symphonies.
Although Boulez has been re-visiting his repertoire on DG, this Mahler cycle is his first, and has been regarded as something of a mixed bag. However, one consistent feature – and this new Third is no exception – is Boulez’s emphasis on the purely symphonic aspects of Mahler symphonies. In their famous and oft-cited (and sometimes misquoted) exchanges, Mahler and Sibelius debated their respective perspectives on the nature of the symphony. The Finnish master emphasised his admiration for “severity of form” whereas Mahler insisted that the symphony must “contain all the world”. Some interpreters have seized on the latter as being an excuse for liberal interpretations of what are extraordinarily detailed scores. Boulez’s approach, as exemplified in the present performance, is to focus on the symphonic weight and integrity of the music and so, for some, he may miss the incandescent, transcendental qualities espoused by others.
The first movement, in Boulez’s hands, does not sprawl as it can do. Rather ironically, given its 30-minute-plus length, it feels like a tautly knit symphonic argument, with the various sections clearly defined and contrasted, though thoroughly integrated and cohesive. What Boulez makes evident right from the start, with bold, yet not brazen, horns intoning the majestic introduction (the rhythm of which is, oddly, identical to that of the main melody in the finale of Brahms’s First Symphony) is that this is to be primarily a symphonic journey. Not a journey without incident, to be sure, but one where perhaps the nature parallels – as outlined in Mahler’s original descriptive scheme – are not paramount. The sonority of the orchestra is abundant and characterful – Boulez encourages the strengths of his Vienna players who are, of course, thoroughly steeped in Mahler’s soundworld – and the recorded sound is faithful and natural. I played these SACDs through a ’normal’ system; the balance – no doubt due primarily to the conductor – is exemplary. [On an SACD player, the sound has a little more tangibility and fuller sonority – Ed.]
In the first movement, trombones and trumpets, in their lamenting, funereal motifs, are expressive as well as powerful; throughout, the playing of wind and brass solos is outstanding. The keening oboe in the fourth movement, for instance, is touchingly poignant, and the portamento given without the gross exaggeration which distorts other readings of this phrase. A small but telling example of Boulez’s scrupulous attention to Mahler’s markings.
As the first movement progresses, there is a sense of striving and yearning – as there is in all Mahler – and yet this does not lead to distortions of phrase or line. The recapitulation and coda is wonderfully exhilarating, rather than simply manic and fast. The second movement is most delicately poised, with solo winds and pizzicato strings suggesting a real sense of chamber music interplay at the start. This is rather a restrained reading, with the contrasting livelier sections never becoming hysterical; in its almost playful grace and elegance, I was reminded of Britten’s conducting of his arrangement of this movement.
The more ambiguous shadows of the third movement benefit from Boulez’s noting – ignored by some – of the crucial ’ohne hast’ (without hurrying) direction. The conclusion of this movement, which is often frenzied, came as something of a surprise in its breadth, until checking the score where another restraining instruction (’nicht eilen) is noted. Be that as it may, I would have liked a greater adrenaline rush at this juncture. There is a sense of the orchestra being held in check. In the central, more placid, sections, the velvet quality of the VPO’s strings is beautifully caught by the engineers, but I formed the impression that the perspective of the off-stage posthorn has been achieved through studio means rather than placed naturally distant.
In the Nietzsche setting which forms the fourth movement, Boulez’s refusal to overly emote is mirrored by the cool restraint of Anne Sofie von Otter’s delivery. Her diction is extremely clear and whilst she is less warm or overtly maternal than some in this music, the combination of her comparative restraint and the sometimes-eerie orchestral sounds – especially the high string harmonics – make this a rather more disquieting movement than is sometimes the case.
Boys’ and women’s voices carol merrily in the ’Wunderhorn’-inspired movement which follows, yet one cannot help feeling that the dark phantoms of the music which preceded it have not quite been dispelled. Some may prefer a brighter, more buoyant approach, although it fits in perfectly with Boulez’s conception of the symphony as a whole. Moreover, the movement feels connected with those surrounding it, rather then being a mere interlude.
Boulez’s flowing approach to the opening of the finale is characteristic, but, in this instance, I do not feel that the implications of ’Langsam, Ruhevoll, Empfunden’ (slow, peaceful, deeply felt) are conveyed. Surprisingly, Boulez, who is invariably meticulous concerning dynamics, allows the strings to play much too loudly for the repeated pp and ppp markings.
Nevertheless, the sense of symphonic questing – and ultimate resolve – continues, and the concluding pages are as potent as one could wish. There is no sense – mercifully – of the bombast that can sometimes affect the end of the symphony.
Boulez’s approach is the only one for this titanic work, of course, but this is a thoroughly absorbing performance, which can be strongly recommended. I look forward to Boulez’s recordings of symphonies 2 and 8, which will complete this cycle.

 

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