Boulez’s Resurrection

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.2 in C minor (Resurrection)

Christine Schäfer (soprano) & Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano)

Wiener Singverein

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Recorded in May & June 2005 in the Grosser Saal of the Musikverein, Vienna

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: November 2006
CD No: DG 477 6004
Duration: 81 minutes

Pierre Boulez’s survey of Mahler symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon – which started in 1995 – is drawing to its close. It only remains for No.8 and, should he choose to include it (which I doubt, actually), one of the ‘realisations’ of No.10 for the cycle to be complete. Three orchestras have been engaged throughout – the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland, and the Vienna Philharmonic. Oddly enough, Boulez has not returned to his – and Mahler’s – one-time orchestra, the New York Philharmonic.

I have always found that there is something particularly special about these Boulez-led Vienna Mahler performances. I don’t quite know what it is; maybe the ‘personality’ of the orchestra and especially the distinctive warmth of the string timbre are key factors. Whatever the case, there have been very fine performances of symphonies 5, 6 and, especially, 3.

Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony receives a comparably distinguished reading. Boulez’s current view is not the angst-ridden, all-embracing one espoused by, say, Leonard Bernstein; neither is it a ‘chilly’ one such as some might have claimed the younger Boulez to have delivered. In fact, I have a ‘pirate’ recording of a 1973 BBC Symphony Orchestra performance under Boulez, which quite belies the notion of a ‘cold’ conductor at work. The same applies in Vienna, thirty-two years later.

What is characteristic of this performance is – unsurprisingly – fidelity to the score, as well as an outstanding appreciation of Mahler’s symphonic architecture. A mere literal delivery of the notes and performing instructions is not enough in a work like this – witness Gilbert Kaplan’s well-intentioned reading also from Vienna on the same label, where the earnest desire to dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘T’ does not lead to especially convincing results.

Boulez grips the listener’s attention right from the start – there is a frisson in the atmosphere, and one senses a stoic, resigned journey through a movement which was originally entitled Totenfeier – literally, ‘funeral rite’, or ‘requiem’. (Interestingly, Boulez has recorded Totenfeier with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, coupled with a work and composer whom one does not necessarily associate with Boulez – Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra.) The climaxes are powerful indeed, though arising naturally from what has gone before. The ‘ebb and flow’ of the composer’s restless markings are unerringly caught; indeed, there is nervousness and tension permeating the overall interpretation – Boulez does not shirk from placing Mahler’s blacker moments before us.

The second movement is no mere interlude; instead, one senses once again unease in the shadows. The tempo flows as it should – Andante moderato – and there is some outstanding string playing, not least from the violas and cellos. The solo woodwinds are also unimpeachable – expressive and beautifully articulated.

Any sense of repose at this movement’s close is thrust aside by the explosive timpani’s announcement of the scherzo. Based on Mahler’s music for the “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” song ‘Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes’, this ride is a distinctly choppy one. Boulez – and his players – eschew any hint of ‘schmaltz’ in what is, effectively, the trio, and a climax of desperation – with music pre-figuring the finale – hurls forth quite frighteningly.

Michelle DeYoung’s rich and darkly-hued mezzo proves well-suited to the strains of the fourth movement – another ‘Wunderhorn’ setting – ‘Urlicht’ (Primal Light). Here, the conductor’s ear for detail may be noted – the brass, bassoon and contrabassoon phrases have rarely been so immaculately shaped, with the different instrumental timbres registering most clearly. DeYoung’s delivery of the concluding phrases is haunting – a real moment of calm before the storm to be unleashed in the finale.

Consistently fine though Boulez’s interpretation is, I found this fifth movement to be quite overwhelming – indeed, shattering in places, without losing sight of purely musical values. Furthermore, the various ‘episodes’ do not feel, as they so often do, episodic – rather, as musical ‘events’ leading naturally on from one another. Again, various felicities – such as bassoon staccatos and horn tenutos – are executed impeccably. The off-stage music is perfectly judged – and does not sound artificial – the distant ‘band’ invading the orchestra’s music is a properly disconcerting moment. The hushed choral singing is as fine as one would expect from the Wiener Singverein, and Christine Schäfer soars above magnificently.

But the end of this symphony in this performance seems to me to raise questions about Mahler’s intentions. Is his cry of “Aufersteh’n” – resurrection – a vain hope or an affirmative statement in this post-holocaust, ‘9/11’ era? Like all great performances of great works, questions are raised and left, tantalisingly, not wholly answered.

Boulez’s is not the only valid approach to this music – Leonard Bernstein’s live 1973 performance with the London Symphony Orchestra in Ely Cathedral (CD on Sony, DVD on DG) remains, for me, definitive – but the view of one of the greatest living musicians is not one to be ignored. As such, Boulez’s release requires urgent attention.

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