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Boulez’s Mahler 2: The Viennese Save the Day

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Jeremy Lee writes

Let’s get straight to the point.  Pierre Boulez has essentially imposed the same kind of interpretation on both Mahler 2 and 3, and while his Third turned out to be excellent mostly because of his successful realization of the more mundane, earthy context of Mahler’s “Nature” symphony, his Second fails to take off precisely because of this earthliness.  In rejecting Mahler’s life-death struggle and failing to allow even a drop of spirituality dilute his interpretative palate, contrasts are narrowed, climaxes are underdone, and all the rougher parts of Mahler’s score (and there are quite a few) are ironed out.  The basses that start the first movement are pitifully timid, and the outburst starting the development displaying not a shred of terror.  There’s not even an organ sound to be heard in the final “Aufersteh’n” for goodness’ sake.

So, in exchange for supersensual delights, Boulez has opted for clarity and transparency, but this approach doesn’t seem to work here.  Oddly though, I quite like this recording, and that’s mostly because of the Vienna Philharmonic.  Of the 9 or 10 recordings of Mahler 2 I own, I have Mehta, Levine and Kaplan’s, all played by the Viennese, but none are as well-recorded as Boulez’s, nor do they sound particularly Viennese.  Here Boulez allows the splendor of the Viennese sound to shine through the otherwise uneventful approach, with the alluringly-upholstered strings, tangy woodwinds and burnished brass making a colossal impact, the kind of sound that Mahler would have heard himself.  I particularly like the way the trombone is always so prominent, pinning the bass line of the climaxes with vehement force.  And besides the Vienna factor, Boulez’s unique way with the music reveals many details you won’t hear anywhere else, from the carefully-layered climaxes to the softest passages in the second movement.

I know that many people will want their Mahler Seconds filled with heaven-storming passion, and if you are one of those you will be much happier with Bernstein, Levine, Solti and Mehta’s readings, to name a few.  But if you love the Viennese sound and are curious to know what virtues Boulez’s analytical, transparent way with Mahler would bring to the party, you don’t need further encouragement.


  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No .2
  • Performers:  Christine Schäfer (soprano);  Michelle DeYoung (contralto);  Pierre Boulez (conductor);  Wiener Singverein;  Vienna Philharmonic
  • Label:  DG 477 6004
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  80:36

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

One thought on “Boulez’s Mahler 2: The Viennese Save the Day

  1. Pingback: A Consideration of Pierre Boulez’s Mahler Cycle | Top Ear

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