Pierre Boulez Conducts Mahler
No musician alive has bridged the personae of composer and performer more effectively than Pierre Boulez. He now guests regularly with many of the world’s elite orchestras, and while the 88-year-old Frenchman’s own compositions still elicit resistance among tradition-minded listeners, his effectiveness as a conductor is almost universally admired. His Mahler recordings, begun in the mid-1990s and presented complete in this 14-CD set, are among his most illuminating confrontations with the music of the past.
A composer linked inextricably with modernism, Boulez’s inclination is toward clarity, texture, and structure. Among the revelatory aspects of these recordings are the slower tempos he often chooses, allowing little-noticed aspects of the music — a pungent dissonance, a peculiar instrumental color – to emerge. Other conductors have done this, with varying levels of success, but few can challenge Boulez’s ability to unearth these hidden features without losing sight of a movement’s larger form. No performance demonstrates this better than the Seventh Symphony, from which he drew so much inner detail that it will permanently alter the way one hears the piece.
The common knock against Boulez is that with all this textural lucidity comes a poker-faced attitude – the performances sound aloof and detached. This is true of a few performances here, notably the Second Symphony and the song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde.’’ But most resist this alleged emotional sterility. There’s a light, transparent feel to the First and Fourth symphonies, and Boulez is able to draw deep, heartfelt intensity in the Third and Ninth. He’s even able to make the unruly Eighth Symphony sound surprisingly well ordered. Perhaps the biggest surprise is how effectively Boulez captures the nostalgic character of the settings of “Des Knaben Wunderhorn.” A CD of songs includes the “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” cycle, sung with unstinting ardor by the great baritone Thomas Quasthoff, now retired from concertizing. It’s a marvelous reminder of his artistry at its peak.
Finally, it should also be noted that one thing is consistent across the entire set: the marvelous playing that the conductor elicits from four ensembles – the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Berlin Staatskapelle. With Boulez having canceled appearances this year in Cleveland and Chicago, one wonders whether his astounding run as a conductor may have come to an end; if so, this set is as fine a commemoration as any.David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.