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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 Resurrection (1888-1894) [76:66]
Christine Schäfer, (soprano)
Michelle DeYoung (mezzo)
Wiener Singverein
Wiener Philharmoniker/Pierre Boulez
rec. Grosser Saal, Wiener Musikverein, May-June 2005. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 6004 [76:66]


A Financial Times critic said of this recording that it is a "life-changing experience for anyone who thought they knew their Mahler". I hadnít read that until after Iíd listened many times over, but he expresses exactly what I feel, too. This performance really does give a new perspective on a much-loved symphony. It is especially important because it has been over thirty years since Boulez last recorded this symphony.

Whatever a conductor of this stature has to say is going to be worth listening to. Decades ago, Boulez said, when speaking of Mahler, that the world was "approaching the end of an era surfeited with richness, asphyxiated with plethora Ö Goodbye, romanticism, with your fatty degeneration of the heart!" Mahler was in so many ways ahead of his time. As Boulez continued Mahlerís music "had little of the typical fin de siècle turgidity Ö more relevant is the anxiety of an artist creating a new world that proliferates beyond his rational control, a dizzying sense of uniting agreement and contradiction in equal parts Ö and the search for an order less obviously established and less easily accepted". Thus Boulez hears in Mahler a modernism thatís bracingly refreshing. This is a recording of startling insight, and extremely valuable in terms of advancing Mahler performance practice.

From the start, this interpretation highlights the symphonyís architecture. Indeed, this would be an excellent first version for anyone who doesnít know the symphony at all, because the development is so lucid. Even the most pianissimo details can be heard clearly, yet the sense of purpose is such that every sound has a function, and makes a contribution to the whole. Each theme is deftly delineated. The great angular shapes of the Allegro maestoso are there for a reason, and have a role to play in the progress towards the resounding culmination of the "Resurrection" in the final movement. A few years ago, Boulez and the Vienna Philharmonic recorded Mahlerís Third Symphony, where similar great walls of sound push the music towards an inexorable conclusion; here we have even more powerful surges. For Boulez, this "sense of trajectory" is an integral part of the musical logic. He makes the Second Symphony move with remarkable vigour. Itís irrelevant what the actual timing might be Ė what matters is that it flows well and feels perfectly judged.

Orchestral playing on this level is inherently exciting. Of course you know whatís happening next, but you canít quite believe that playing can be so good, so nuanced, so exquisite. It does real justice to Mahlerís music, where large forces must be handled with precision and power, yet, at the same time, be as refined as if in chamber ensemble. Many times, the playing is so achingly beautiful you donít want the moment to end, and yet it is not the virtuosity per se youíre admiring but the way it achieves the musical development as a whole. While listening, I was stunned to realize that Iíd been weeping real tears at the sheer beauty of this level of musicianship. Mahler was a conductor who wanted very high standards, though orchestras in his time were often not as sophisticated as they are now. Perhaps he, too, might have wept with joy listening to how the Vienna Philharmonic brings his notes to life with such feeling and clarity.

In the second movement, the orchestra sounds as if its virtuosity is utterly effortless, so graceful is its "nicht eilen". The first movement may be more immediately striking, but this orchestra and conductor show that the quiet Andante, is no less fascinating, for they define its complex counter melodies and invention with clarity. Later, the Fischpredigt theme is played with outstanding vivacity. Even without knowing the reference, the playing evokes the image of vivid agility. In the Scherzo, Mahler expresses whirling movement, vibrancy, constant upheaval, where, as he wrote, "the world appears as in a concave mirror, distorted and mad". Boulez is vividly precise with the dissonances and sudden swoops of tone. Yet even in these dark moments, there are hints of the triumphant theme to come. This is an interpretation which elucidates how brilliantly Mahler integrated his ideas.

In this Urlicht, the Röschen rot really seems to emerge from deep roots. The text is an overwhelmingly profound declaration of faith, one that the composer was to develop throughout his career. It is a myth that this must be sung without vibrato, for well modulated vibrato breathes resonance and depth into long-held vowels. DeYoung has sung a lot of Mahler, and for good reason. Hers is a voice with rich, natural dignity and she uses it with a genuine understanding of the ideas expressed. More surprisingly, Christine Schäfer gives an exceptionally beautiful performance, since her voice is on the light side for Mahler. But Schäfer and Boulez have worked together so many times and seem to bring out the best in each other.

This is one of the most inspiring Auferstehíns Iíve heard. I thought I knew it well, but this really was a revelation. That first fanfare could blast away cobwebs. Gradually the "soaring" motif is introduced, beautifully underscored by pizzicato strings, whose music is echoed on horn. Then, like a tsunami, a great drum-roll announces the exposition of the main theme, trumpets blazing, strings sweeping in perfect formation. Here is where clarity of concept pays off: Boulez keeps the textures clearly defined, keeping details in focus without losing the dynamic. Each climax seems to give way to ever-expanding new vistas. Imagine them as you will, as walls of sound and light, or mountain peaks, anything, it doesnít matter as long as youíre following the traverse, for that sense of journey, of building and striving is essential. It doesnít need to be lumpen to be effective. Boulez carefully unravels the perpetual motion in the Scherzo, and builds up plateaux of crescendi that lead, inexorably, towards a final goal.

Almost reverentially, as if approaching from a distance, the chorus arises from the orchestra just as the alto part had done earlier. This reinforces the sense of trajectory that has been the undercurrent throughout. Then, you hear why Boulez keeps choosing Schäfer. With the merest wash of colour, she introduces a serene sense of purity tinged with joy "... hast nichst umsonnst gelebt, gelitten!". She may not have as much to sing as DeYoung, but what she does is critical, for she embodies a new level of light that encapsulates the whole idea of resurrection. Literally, "mit Flügeln, Öwerdí ich entschweben zum Licht, zu dem kein Augí gedrungen!" - "With wings, I shall soar upwards to the Light, to which no eye has soared".

Boulezís interpretation is truly infused with light, and illuminates how Mahlerís music germinates and grows. Mahler was a man of mental acuity, who was uncommonly well informed and literate, and who kept pursuing new ideas and concepts. Even in his Romantic moods, he was not given to sentimentality. Boulez concentrates on how the music works, and on what Mahler felt about it. This is important, because Mahler was a thinker and intellectual. In many ways, his whole career was a search for the meaning of life, developed through the prism of music. Not for him, I suspect, "the fatty degeneration of the heart" that has crept into some aspects of Mahler appreciation. This recording will draw fire, as all good and original work seems to do. But it is an essential for anyone genuinely interested in learning more about Mahler and Mahler interpretation. Itís not instantly flamboyant, but repays careful and perceptive listening. The last words in the symphony say it all: "was du geschlagen, zu Gott wird es dich tragen" (what thou hast fought for shall lead you to God"). This truly is inspirational.

Anne Ozorio


 



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