05 Oct 2006

MAHLER: Symphonie no. 2

Among the outstanding interpreters of Mahler’s music, Pierre Boulez stands out for his recent recordings of the composer’s symphonies. Having worked with various international orchestras, Boulez has been preserving on CD some finely shaped performances, and if he intends to create a cycle akin to those of other conductors, he is wisely recording the works one by one and not necessarily in the order in which they were composed.

Thus, after releasing his performances of various works of Mahler, Boulez has turned to the Second in a 2006 release of performances made in June 2005 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

Boulez brings to this and other recordings of Mahler’s symphonies a sense of clarity and precision that is evident from the start. With the incisive gesture that is reminiscent the opening scene of Wagner’s Die Walküre, Boulez presents an interpretation of the first movement that is faithful to the score and lacking the affectations that some conductors make. While his tempos cannot be mistake as impetuous, Boulez never paints himself into an interpretative corner that forces him to resort to unconventional means of relating one section to another, in the extended sonata form of the first movement. Likewise, Boulez balances sonorities and in doing so does avoids compromising timbres. In the rich string textures he evokes from the Vienna Philharmonic, Boulez does not overemphasize that timbre at the expense of the brass sonorities. Likewise, his command of the brass and winds never allows their sound to overshadow the generally balanced tone of the orchestra. As conservative as this may sound, such judgment is effective in allowing the work to speak for itself. For those who might prefer a recording that has excessively contrasting tempos and an extremely wide choice of dynamic ranges, such scene-chewing is absent from this recording. When Mahler uses percussion in the dramatic gestures at the center of the movement, the sudden contrast that Boulez creates introduces a moment of genuine drama.

Likewise, Boulez offers a clarity in the string textures at the opening of the second movement that give the effect of chamber music, albeit on the scale that Mahler would introduce to his orchestral scoring of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet. The distinctions of tempo in this movement are effective in rendering Mahler’s musical narrative. This is a movement full of subtleties that emerge from the attention that Boulez brings to the details. It is by no means a conventional slow movement or intermezzo, but a more dynamic form that embodies both the sectional organization of its ternary structure and the kind of developing variations that Mahler would bring to near-perfection in the penultimate movement of the Fourth Symphony. Boulez offers a fine reading of this movement, which is cleanly played and, to a degree austere. The portamento sonorities are evident, but subdued, thus giving the sound a modern slant.

The third movement is noteworthy for its use of the song "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" as the basis for the Scherzo, and in transforming the song into an instrumental milieu, Mahler found a way to introduce yet another text implicitly into the Symphony. Without sacrificing lyricism, Boulez offers a reading that is somewhat brisker than some conductors take the movement. Such tempos are useful in conveying the character of the symphonic movement and effecting the transformation of the song into the orchestral idiom. Thus, the trio, which echoes the Scherzo theme from Mahler’s academic colleague Hans Rott, is approached in a less jarring manner. The deft hand of Boulez keeps the musical ideas flowing one to the other. It is a reading of the Scherzo that deserves attention for its clearly delineated form. The architecture of the movement is evident in the execution which relies, no doubt, from Boulez’s clear understanding of the structure of the movement.

With the fourth movement, the setting of the text “Urlicht,” from the anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Mahler created a vocal prelude to the choral Finale. The mezzo-soprano Michelle de Young offers a fine reading of the song, which is a critical link to the thematic content of the concluding movement. Some of the darker sounds of de Young’s voice contribute to the timbre of the movement, with its stronger reliance on winds and brass colors. In the second section of the song, where the text concerns the implicit narrator’s confrontation with the angel, de Young brings a dramatic sense to the song that suggests the inner struggle that must precede the resolution of ideas that ultimately occurs in the movement that follows.

Yet the Finale of the Second Symphony may be regarded one of Mahler’s more challenging conceptions as he combines somewhat programmatic ideas with a structure that involves several interconnected sections that are held together by text. It is difficult not to recall some of the more highly charged interpretations of this movement by conductors like Leonard Bernstein, but Boulez maintain the integrity of the score in a reading that maintains some restraint and, if it can be inferred, a degree of objectivity. It is difficult to encounter a performance of this work that is not compelling. Yet if Boulez exhibited restraint earlier in the Symphony, the concluding section is powerful in its aggressive tone and full textures. With such a highly integrated chorus as that of the Wiener Singverein, the powerful conclusion emerges with a strength and precision that the work deserves. In leading the Finale Boulez refrains from introducing mannerisms that detract from the score as Mahler left it. No scene-chewing histrionics mar the dignity that Boulez brings to his reading, which stands well with his other recent recordings of Mahler’s symphonies.

Christine Schäfer is notable for her solid performance of the relatively short part that Mahler conceived for the soprano, as well as in her duet with de Young. The part is hardly challenging for Schäfer, as she delivers the text clearly and, as elsewhere in this recording, without affectation. Both solo voices are a foil for the choral forces that convey the ultimate message of the text that gives the work its epithet of “Auferstehung.” This is a fine addition to the existing discography of a Symphony that has become quite familiar in recent years not only through some prominent concert performances, but also solid recordings like this one. Boulez achieves a convincing reading of the work that is first of all symphonic, and this helps to put the recording into the context of his other recent performances of Mahler’s works.

James L. Zychowicz