Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Boulez in New York

Symphony No.3

Anna Larsson (contralto)

Women of the Westminster Symphonic Choir
The American Boychoir

Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 6 October, 2007
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

French composer/conductor Pierre Boulez (b.1925)When the Lucerne Festival Orchestra’s visit to Carnegie Hall was first announced, Claudio Abbado’s performance of Mahler’s mighty Third Symphony promised to be the crowning glory of the ensemble’s New York appearances. It was Abbado’s enthusiasm and love of Mahler’s music that brought this orchestra into existence five years ago. With the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (which he also founded) as a core, members of some of Europe’s finest orchestral, chamber and solo musicians have come together every summer since to work with the Italian conductor.

This special relationship between a unique orchestra and its music director, a renowned Mahlerian, had raised great expectations. Unfortunately it was not to be. After two performances of the work in Lucerne and one at the BBC Proms in London, Abbado had to cancel due to an unspecified illness. We can only hope that he will return, as he did after his cancer surgery in 2000.

Taking over from such a beloved artist, conducting an orchestra imprinted on him, in a work he had meticulously prepared and performed, presents an immense challenge. It was fortunate that his revered senior colleague Pierre Boulez was able to take it on, and the results were quite extraordinary. Boulez tends to be a more analytical conductor than Abbado, more concerned with structure and clarity and less with the emotional subtext of music, more Apollonian than Dionysian.

At this concert there were moments where one wished for just a little more abandon – in the internal climaxes of the first movement, or at the glorious conclusion of the symphony. On the other hand, Boulez’s grasp of the overall structure was magnificent.

The first movement was taken at a very stately tempo, clocking in at 37 minutes, but not once did it seem too slow or static, and the clarity within it was simply breathtaking. Doubtless a lot of it had been painstakingly worked out over the summer, and Boulez had the luxury of incorporating these beautiful details into his overall concept. The huge string section played with the greatest delicacy, listening to each other like a chamber ensemble, but also with a polished richness of tone and unforced power. Likewise, the woodwinds and brass achieved a degree of internal blend, tuning and balance that one usually only finds in sections which have been playing together for years. Jörgen van Rijn, principal of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, was the fine trombone soloist in the first movement, and Hannes Läubin, principal of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, played magnificently a real posthorn in the important off-stage solo in the third movement. Boulez supported him very sympathetically with a rather flowing tempo, creating more of a nostalgic mood than the sentimentality one often hears in this section.

Anna LarssonThe fourth movement was stark and forlorn, bleak. Swedish soprano Anna Larsson started with a somewhat dry tone that gradually warmed, but she never quite conveyed the emotional intensity of Nietzsche’s poetry. She was more at ease in the next movement, where the women of the Westminster Symphonic Choir and the American Boychoir joined her. Mahler initially had entitled the finale ‘What Love tells me’, marked “Slowly. Peacefully. Deeply felt”. After five movements, a soloist, a choir and 80 minutes of music, he chose to end the symphony with an Adagio, some of the most moving music he ever wrote. Many conductors can’t resist the temptation to get overly sentimental here, letting it disintegrate into a string of ‘deeply felt’ moments and loosing continuity. Not so Boulez. From beginning to end he pursued one long line, sustained for over 23 minutes. The most magical moment occurs near the end – a foreshortened piccolo line left hanging in the air, finally resolved by the ensuing brass chorale. The trumpet players acquitted themselves brilliantly, preparing the final build-up to the symphony’s triumphant conclusion, with perfectly matched thunderous strokes by the two timpanists.

This was a very special evening at Carnegie Hall, with a well-deserved roaring ovation at the end. And how often do you see orchestral musicians embracing each other before they leave the stage? We can only hope that this group will continue to enrich our lives.

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