Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mahler: Symphony No.6 - Wiener Philharmoniker, Boulez

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 6
Wiener Philharmoniker, Pierre Boulez
Deutsche Grammophon 445 835-2GH

Say whatever you like. This is my favorite version of my favorite Mahler symphony.

There are inescapable comparisons to be made here between Boulez and Bernstein. Two composer-conducting former directors of the New York Philharmonic, latterly granted carte blanche by the same record company to re-record the music that made them famous (and let's not forget it was sometimes the other way round). Boulez may not be everyone's idea of the perfect Mahlerian, but it is splendid to see DG's ambitious series starting to embrace repertoire he has not previously committed to disc. Conveniently, the yellow label has been responsible for almost every great recording of the Sixth — "the only Sixth despite the Pastoral" according to Alban Berg (and Boulez has not recorded much Beethoven). So Boulez the conductor is in safe hands, the more so since he has the Vienna Philharmonic to offset any tendency to cerebral introspection. The results are fascinating if not exactly compulsive and those sympathetic to his interpretative approach will find plenty to enjoy.
Returning to performing the symphony after a gap of more than15 years, Boulez launches the first movement at a pace slightly slower than the latter-day norm, though he does not seek to emulate Barbirolli's world-weary trudge (now available on CD — to be reviewed shortly). He has the same orchestra as Bernstein in his live 1988 DG version, but at once you notice the different quality of ensemble, adequately precise but softer-grained, lacking the hysterical precision (some would say overwrought quality) of his rival. One might expect parallels with Sinopoli in that Boulez too is concerned to ensure that as much as possible of the score be made audible to the listener. The difference is that he does not see it as his role to choose between competing musical ideas, never spotlighting one significant detail at the expense of another, so that a certain coolness prevails. Nor does he swing into the so-called Alma theme to the manner born — compare the instinctive emotional thrust of a Bernstein or, more surprisingly, a Karajan. It is only the development's interlude of idyllic, cowbell-encrusted calm that finds him at a loss. Seemingly embarrassed by such naïve nature symbolism he puts on the blinkers and keeps going.
The slow movement is placed third. Having been alerted to the prospect of a relatively rapid tempo, I was expecting something unorthodox. True. Boulez disregards Karajan's Brucknerian revivification, but the lighter intermezzo-like quality of his own account is by no means implausible and works beautifully in its own way. The finale will be more of a problem for some listeners. Boulez's structural imperatives do seem to preclude an appreciable sense that there are elemental forces at work here. One would not expect him to identify with romantic notions that limit the scope of the music by presenting it as the ravings of a hero-protagonist-conductor felled by the malign workings of Fate. That said, my own preference is definitely for something more searingly intense. Speeds as such are well chosen, on the fast side but uncontroversially so: l was puzzled only by his unsteady reading of the 'heavy' brass chorale at fig. 106 (23811).
For all the care devoted to problems of balance and articulation, the questions remain. How important is the lack of 'idiomatic' rubato? Is this Mahler limpid or merely limp in its avoidance of 'imprudent ecstasy'? Let's side-step the issue and end on a positive note: DG have managed to squeeze the performance on to one disc — Sony might have done so with the earlier Bernstein but didn't — and there are copious notes by Henry Louis de la Grange. The International Mahler Society Edition (1963) suggests a running time in the region of 80 minutes. In this respect, Boulez is spot on. DSG (David Gutman)

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