31 May 2007

MAHLER: Symphony no. 2

Given the fine recent recordings of Mahler’s Second Symphony on both CD and DVD, the release of Pierre Boulez’s performances from 26 and 27 March 2005 at the Philharmonie, Berlin, is a further contribution to the interpretations of this important work.

This recording dates from the celebrations in Berlin of Boulez’s eightieth birthday, and shows the conductor as a vital artist who is not content to be feted in the concert honoring him, but to continue his own music-making by conducting it himself. The intensity that Boulez brings to live concerts is captured in this video which was made in conjunction with the ARTE France, which brought its own quality to the visual presentation of this milestone performance. The titling actually gives the occasion first, that is, the celebration of Boulez’s eightieth birthday, with the name of the working following it.

As to the timing of this concert, this video predates the performances Boulez made in June 2005 when he recorded Mahler’s Second Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic for a CD released in 2006 by Deutsche Grammophon (with Michelle De Young and Christine Schäfer). Both recordings demonstrate the fine attention to detail that Boulez brings to this score, along with a subtle intensity in allowing the nuances to emerge. In fact, it is possible to perceive Boulez shading the dynamics and balance throughout the performance — sometimes it would be preferable to see more of Boulez than the shots of the orchestra that focus too often on close-ups of instruments rather than the players or their sections.

The performance itself is quite effective. Boulez set the tone well in the first movement, which moves along with the sense of urgency that is implicit in the score. The playing clean and precise, with the clear direction from Boulez present throughout the movement. In addition, the sound is nicely balanced and the dynamic range appropriately fully, thus conveying the sense of the live hall that the audience experienced. While the forward motion is evident in this reading, the concluding passage is paced so that it emphasizes the descending gesture, rather leaving it sound as though it were a tacked-on gesture. That bit of drama draws in the audience, and it is a detail like this that sets Boulez’s live performances apart from other conductors.

With the second movement, Boulez captured the tone of the piece from the start, and the chamber-music-like sound from the string is rich in this reading. Subdued in volume, this idyllic piece is still intense for its tight ensemble and unified gestures. Unlike the more extroverted movements that Mahler used to frame this Symphony, the economy of gesture and theme are essential to the interpretation of this piece that becomes, in Mahler’s erstwhile programs for the work, a reminiscence of the past. It is, perhaps, an idealized image of the protagonist’s life, as suggested by the form and style Mahler for the movement. This is a fine example of the close ensemble that Boulez drew from the forces at his disposal.

The third movement differs in its move outgoing nature. An instrumental reworking of Mahler’s song Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, the movement also contains an extended quotation from the Scherzo of his colleague Hans Rott’s Symphony in E. While Mahler’s programs for the movement had someone from the outside looking into a ballroom scene — as could be imagined through the invocation of Rott, the narrative text intersects the memory of the song that is at the core of Mahler’s Scherzo. Lyricism is evident in this movement and, if a weakness may be found, it is in the somewhat subdued entrances of Rott’s Scherzo theme — music that suggests the rollicking dance from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

With the fourth movement, the Wunderhorn song Urlicht, Mahler sets into motion the vocal elements that are essential to the choral Finale of the entire Symphony. Petra Lang offers a solid reading of the solo piece, with a rich dark tone that can be easily heard over the accompaniment. It may be the recording, but the DVD sound does not capture entirely the enunciation of the text, which is essential for understanding Mahler’s intentions in using Klopstock’s text for the final movement. Yet the camera has captured Lang’s strongly pronounced entrance of the passage in the Finale with the text “O glauben,” which becomes a duet with Damrau’s entrance.

The cantata-like canvas of the fifth movement is wonderfully evocative, and Boulez’s performance is laudable for its unified approach to the first part, the one in which the instrumental forces alternate between passages of thematic development and sheer effect (like the percussion rolls that signal the dead march). With the entrances of the solo voices, Boulez allows the text to emerge clearly. In shaping the choral forces, Boulez was as sensitive to the softer passages, as he was to the string textures of the second movement. He gradually builds the movement to the critical passage “Sterbe ich um zu leben,” with music that anticipates the choral Finale of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, both of which share the “Auferstehungs” motif from Wagner’s opera Siegfried. Here the instrumental and vocal forces are unified in conveying Mahler’s music succinctly in the powerful conclusion of this work.

Well-recorded videos of concerts like this are welcome, and this is especially true for those of a conductor like Boulez, whose almost legendary finesse deserves such documentation. The visual element helps to demonstrate the command of the ensemble that must occur with successful performances like this one. Details, like the physical dimensions of the hall, images of the attentive audience, and such elements reinforce the focus of the video which, necessarily, emphasizes the conductor and the musicians he is leading. Nevertheless, some elements are not answered in the film. It is unclear how Boulez treated Mahler’s marking after the first movement, which indicates a break of at least five minutes before the second movement. While a clear separation between the movements occurs on the DVD, it is less than five minutes on the video and even then, recording such a pause would not contribute anything significant: such directions for Mahler’s music belong to the immediacy of the live performance. Yet other, perhaps more salient aspects of the live performance emerge in this recording, especially the warm way in which the audience greeted Boulez greeted at the start of the concert and the correspondingly enthusiastic response at its conclusion. More than a birthday celebration for one of the major composers and conductors of the last century, this DVD has much to offer for the qualities Boulez brings to this notable concert performance of one of Mahler’s finest works.

James L. Zychowicz