Mahler: The Symphonies in Sequence – Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim & Boulez in New York [Symphony No.6/Boulez]

Symphony No. 6

Staatskapelle Berlin
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 12 May, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

After a day of rest for most of the orchestra, Staatskapelle Berlin continued the second half of its Mahler cycle with the composer’s blackest work, the Sixth Symphony. It is often referred to as the “Tragic”, although Mahler himself did not designate it as such.

Pierre BoulezIt started grimly enough, Pierre Boulez setting a dark, martial mood with the heavy repeated As in the cellos and double basses, and he seemed determined to keep a pall over the whole work from beginning to end, minimally acknowledging Mahler’s many detailed expressive and dynamic markings. The usually soaring ‘Alma’ second theme was still more march-like than “schwungvoll” (sweeping), and even in the wistful sections of the development there was barely a change of mood or color, in spite of beautifully executed solos by the woodwinds and the leader.

There is much controversy about the order of inner movements in this symphony. Mahler originally conceived the scherzo as the second movement, the Andante as the third, and he played them thus in an initial reading with the Vienna Philharmonic that pleased him. During rehearsals for the premiere in Essen, however, he started to have doubts and eventually switched the order, which may or may not have been his last thought on the matter. Compositionally there are strong reasons to adhere to his initial concept, which is what Boulez followed.

Klaus Tennstedt once called the scherzo a “caricature of an Austrian Ländler”, with its changing meters and abrupt shift in tempo. Boulez did his best to underplay any kind of characterization. The first trio in all its appearances, marked “merklich langsamer”, “altväterisch” (markedly slower, old-fashioned) was taken at almost the same speed and without much inflection, and the second, even slower, trio did not fare much better.

Boulez seemed in no mood to relax at any point. In the Andante not only was the tempo on the fast side, but it lacked repose and any sense of relaxation or reprieve. Whereas in the third and fourth symphonies he had infused the soft sections with character and atmosphere, here they were not only rather colorless, but often not even soft enough. As in the previous movements, Boulez seemed more interested in clarifying the structure than in casting expressive details into high relief as Mahler has indicated.

This approach worked best in the finale, which requires absolute structural control. The composer’s meticulous orchestration, from the bleakness of the tuba motif to the excitement of the two hammer blows, creates an ambience that Boulez finally couldn’t escape, although he drew back again emotionally at the very end. Mahler’s evocation of utter despair seemed perfunctory, turned into nothing more than a brass chorale, followed by a forte outburst, a diminuendo, and a pizzicato. As beautifully as the orchestra played all evening, one was left with a frustrating sense of having missed much of the expressive content of the work. It was a clear and well-structured performance, but ultimately not a moving one.

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