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A Consideration of Pierre Boulez’s Mahler Cycle



The discs under consideration in this article (Jeremy’s collection)

Jeremy Lee writes

Pierre Boulez’s cycle of Mahler symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon, starting with the Sixth with the Vienna Philharmonic recorded in 1994 and ending with the Adagio of the Tenth with the Cleveland Orchestra recorded in 2010, has polarized opinion and has been the source of much amazement as well as harsh criticism.  You either love it or hate it.  To generalize:  the pro-Boulez camp appreciates Boulez’s ability to X-ray the score and bring every detail and voicing out in extremely high definition, his scrupulous adherence to Mahler’s tempo markings, as well as an unerringly taut sense of structure, while the anti-Boulez camp dislikes the chilly demeanor and emotional economy Boulez brings to his performances, at odds with the “true Mahlerian brand” of extravagance in expression.

I have been collecting this cycle piece by piece since I stumbled upon a used copy of his Third, and I thought it perfect to subject this controversial cycle to a thorough, objective appraisal like no other reviewer I have heard of so far has done yet.  I hope that this consideration would allow listeners to judge for themselves whether they would be willing to accept such an iconoclastic view on Mahler, as presented to us by this born-and-bred musical iconoclast.

[Note:  I have chosen to stick to the canonical Mahler cycle, which means the discs under review here include all the symphonies as well as Das Lied von der Erde, while the song cycles (except Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which is coupled with the Adagio of the Tenth) and Das Klagende Lied are excluded.]

Symphony No. 1


  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No. 1
  • Performers:  Pierre Boulez (conductor);  Chicago Symphony Orchestra
  • Label:  DG 459 610-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  52:47

Quite a number of reviewers have found this installment to be the best of the whole cycle, which I find slightly absurd, excellent though it is.  In fact, this is one of the more conventional readings in the cycle.  Boulez brings a suitably hushed opening to the first movement, with all the instruments waking up pretty neatly, and the first subject is joyous enough.  The big D major explosion towards the end is also very well done, if slightly reserved.  This being a cyclic symphony, such a reservation is probably because Boulez doesn’t want to spill the beans for us in the beginning since it will appear in splendorous finality at the very end of the symphony.  The Ländler is taken very quickly, and its boundless energy compensates for its slight glibness.  The funeral march is also aptly quirky, sporting a quick basic tempo and a sensitively contoured Wayfarer trio, and you will simply not hear neater Klezmer episodes anywhere else.

To many, the finale either makes it or breaks it, and Boulez doesn’t disappoint at all.  It’s terrific.  The turbulent opening is colored so vividly and detailed so exquisitely it almost seems like an explosion of, to quote Clarkson, Technicolor blaze (but in a good way, of course), and the Chicago brass section, as always, makes their presence boldly obvious, to really dramatic effect (those trombones rock!!).  The beautiful second subject is kept at a flowing pace, with Boulez not allowing the touching melody degenerate into facile sentimentality, and both the big brass chorales, as you would expect, are confident and sonorous.  I also appreciate the fact that so much of what is underneath the brass chorales are more consciously audible than many other versions, be it the high woodwinds (especially the E-flat clarinet) or the jumping lower strings (for even greater prominence of the latter, you are referred to Abbado/BPO).  But what I really love about this performance of the finale is how Boulez manages to create a tsunami of excitement while still keeping the tempo in check (I am especially referring to the passages before and during the finale chorale in which material from the first movement are recalled for cyclic unity), without having to resort to the (almost hysterical) speed of Levine or, in the brass chorale proper’s case, the astounding broadness of Horenstein.  He does it simply by revealing so much detail you wouldn’t hear anywhere else through such controlled parameters.

Granted, I won’t agree with David Hurwitz’s review of this album on Amazon, who says that Boulez offers a “naughty thrill”.  He doesn’t, and he’s being as cerebral as ever.  But this is not to say that the performance lacks inspiration or spontaneity; far from that, it’s a pretty ear-opening experience.  Sonically this is also one of the best Mahler 1sts ever recorded, being extremely clear and full of presence.  If I were to impart any criticism on it at all, it’s only because, compared to the rest of the Boulez Mahler cycle, this strikes me as less daring and thought-provoking than I expected it to be, therefore I wouldn’t say it’s the best performance in the cycle.  But that doesn’t depreciate the intrinsic value of this effort:  it’s still brilliant.

Symphony No. 2


  • 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

If you want to hear the iconoclastic Boulez in all his iconoclastic glory, welcome, everyone, to the most provoking and controversial Mahler 2nd of recent years.  I’ve reviewed this album before in full here four months ago, and largely my view on it has remained unchanged:  it’s a very beautifully played and recorded performance, mostly because of the heart-meltingly ravishing Viennese sound, but by eschewing so many opportunities to invest emotionally (and sensually) and compensating for that by revealing detail, detail and more detail, I suppose even Boulez himself understands fully well that not everyone will warm to his performance.  Having reheard this recording after hearing pretty much every other installment in the cycle, I seemed to appreciate it more than I recall I did before (it also sounded a bit more dramatic than I had described), but still I acknowledge the daring of such an approach of which antitheses (i.e. the passions of Bernstein or, among recent acquisitions, Abbado/Lucerne) I personally prefer.  Still, there’s no denying a great mastermind at work behind this performance, and I would recommend it to the open-minded.

Symphony No. 3


  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No. 3
  • Performers:  Anne Sofie von Otter (contralto);  Pierre Boulez (conductor);  Women’s Chorus of the Wiener Singverein;  Wiener Sängerknaben;  Vienna Philharmonic
  • Label:  DG 474 038-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  95:23

Mahler’s Third is my personal favorite Mahler symphony, and Boulez’s recording here is my personal favorite Mahler Third.  To call it my favorite Mahler recording of all that I’ve heard would be a dubious claim, not only because there are quite a few other Mahler recordings that equally deserve this title, but also because I believe no single recording could deserve the title “best”; nevertheless, given the desert island situation, you’ll probably see this in my packed luggage to the no-man’s land.

Put simply, this is a perfect performance in every way that it’s almost impossible to find fault with it at all.  Firstly, of course, there’s the Vienna Philharmonic, which plays with its usual standard of impeccability and an even more Viennese-sounding tone than the above-mentioned Mahler 2; that means, all the timbral elements that make the Vienna Philharmonic so special–burnished Viennese horns, snarling brass, zesty woodwinds, upholstered strings and quirky percussion–is all here, and everyone plays with a real enthusiasm and savagery where needed that really is rather impressive.  I’d like to single out the trombones and percussion, two sections normally drowned out in the case of the Vienna Philharmonic, because here they never shy away from their challenges, and they play loudly and proudly when needed.  The hard-sticked timpani really make their presence felt, which makes the brooding first subject of the first movement rhythmically more defined than usual, and also provides a good bit of grandeur in the last movement.

Also spectacular are the vocal forces.  Anne Sofie von Otter is in excellent form here, as her dark, creamy tone, spot-on vibrato, sensitive musicality and excellent diction makes her one of the most alluring mezzos to have sung the part.  The onomatopoeic imitations of bells in the fifth movement are zealously captured by the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and it’s also hard to find problems with the lovely singing of the women of the Vienna Singverein.  (I should mention at this point that Boulez uses the first version of the symphony, which means there is a conspicuous addition of a horn chorale in the fifth movement, beneath “Die himmlische Freude war Petro bereit’t”, an addition not on Boulez’s part, as some reviewers have wrongly noted.)

But then, the great mind behind all this is what puts all these splendid ingredients together to create the perfect Mahlerian feast, not only in terms of sticking to what the composer wrote on the score, but also including quite a bit of emotional involvement as well (whether the latter is voluntary or not is not within the boundaries of our discussion). Firstly, there’s Boulez’s trademark detail, particularly in the first movement, such as the prominent clarinets in figure 70, and of course in the wild-rabble section, where Boulez doesn’t speed up significantly, but yet again works his recipe of excitement from intricacy as with the last brass chorale of his Mahler 1 finale.  Hearing the bass trombone pin down the crescendo-decresendo bass-line before the horn melody, a detail you won’t find anywhere else, is just exhilarating.

Then there’s Boulez’s immaculate sense of pace and structure.  Just a few examples:  The first subject of the first movement is taken slower than usual, and Boulez takes this advantage to coax the Viennese to provide a dynamic range of such enormousness that is actually shocking in its audacity, making it sound even more threatening than usual.  Also, Boulez shows his ear for structure in resisting the temptation to stretch the posthorn solos to dreamy lengths and sticking to the original tempo.

These elements are combined to astonishing effect in the finale, in which beauty of sound, detail, structure and pace completely manifest themselves.  At 22 minutes, it’s effectively paced, but unlike quite a few other recordings (the most obvious being Rattle/CBSO), Boulez decides to gives us an andante-like, flowing yet extremely hushed opening string theme that glows with warmth and tenderness.  The big, heart-wrenching climaxes (I always like to envision them as the deep pain from imperfect Man’s rejection of the offering of agape from perfect God) are filled with angst thanks again to brass and timpani, and the challenging brass chorale after the pristine flute solo is heavenly (the principal trumpet in particular, who carries the melody, sport an extremely smooth legato that is ravishing).  At last, the apotheosis at the end arrives, and Boulez’s decision at the start is immediately self-explanatory:  by direct the expansive emotional weight to the very end and pacing it extra broadly, this vast symphony’s unresolved tension can be at last settled to fully persuasive effect.  In fact, it’s not only persuasive, it’s cathartic.  It is nothing short of a revelation.

Yes, it’s my favorite recording of my favorite Mahler symphony.  And I guess praise can’t get higher than that.

Symphony No. 4


  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No. 4
  • Performers:  Juliane Banse (soprano);  Pierre Boulez (conductor);  Cleveland Orchestra
  • Label:  DG 463 257-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  53:32

Now this is a really chilly performance of Mahler’s chilliest work.  It’s clinically played, conducted and recorded, which is that sort of performance Boulez detractors love to bash.

But it’s precisely this kind of iciness and complete transparency that are Boulezian virtues, irrespective of whether you personally appreciate it or not.  The first bars of the first movement is a case in point:  Boulez observes that the poco rit. marking is only written in the clarinets while the flutes, bells and violins maintain a constant tempo, and he does just that.  But then, while many conductors attempt to do so and fail badly (Tennstedt, in which the overdone ritardando derails the woodwinds), or give up altogether (Mengelberg, in the most self-indulgent full-woodwind ritardando ever done by anyone), Boulez offers just the right amount of poco. rit. so that none of the flow is interrupted; as a result, the two parts are dovetailed seamlessly together.  The first movement climax is also helped by a particularly prominent tam-tam.  Worthy of note, too, is an extraordinarily glittery climax of the Adagio, thanks to some clear percussion playing.  Thrilling stuff.

The sheer beauty of the playing, too, is not something to be taken for granted, as evident in the astonishingly hushed opening of the Adagio, or the second subject of the first movement which, as another reviewer has put it, “flows like a cool stream”.  Julian Banse is a radiant soloist in the finale, and Boulez accompanies sensitively.

Nor can I deny the emotional detachment of the whole performance which is, to some, a minus.  Surely the second movement could do with a slier violin solo, sinewy though the present one undoubtedly is, and more sudden shrieks and bumps.  If you really want involvement, may I recommend Lorin Maazel/VPO whose recording is, as I have mentioned in a previous review (here), my current favorite.  But I do not find that Boulez’s coolness detracts much from my enjoyment of his special way with this work, and given this musical surgery’s excellence, it is certainly one of the most exemplary Mahler Fourths around.

Symphony No. 5




  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No. 5
  • Performers:  Pierre Boulez (conductor);  Vienna Philharmonic
  • Label:  DG 453 416-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  72:17

This Mahler 5th is similar in style to the 4th in the way that both were seemingly conceived in hermetically sealed laboratories in northern Scandinavia by a few people in surgical masks and gloves, safety goggles, anti-bacterial stainless steel equipment and shiny-white lab coats.  However, what makes this 5th such an enduring listen–even to people who don’t like their Mahler conceived in such a way–is quite similar to that of Boulez’s 3rd:  excellent playing, clarity, and sense of structure.

I’m sorry to yet again bring up the Vienna thing, but the truth is that I’m a sucker for this orchestra’s sound and playing, and of all the installments here this is possibly the most Viennese-sounding one.  The matte-toned brass really does pay dividends in the Trauermarsch:  find me a darker, more solemn-sounding trumpet solo at the very start and I shall have my ears sliced off.  And of course, the upholstered string sound coupled with generous portamenti make the waltz bits of the Scherzo very enthralling (even though it doesn’t sound quite idiomatic) and the Adagietto simply the embodiment of bliss.  Playing-wise:  if you want to hear an example of exemplary orchestral precision, try the very final string pizzicato of the first movement.  It’s so clean it’s actually antimicrobial.

Next, we have the supreme clarity, and the only example I need to give is the astonishing contrapuntal clarity of the Rondo-Finale (Mahler’s quasi-Bach exercise).  No matter how dense the lines are, or how muddled up all the lines eventually become, every voicing and every nuance is perfectly audible.  I suspect this is achieved by a slightly more spiccato playing in the strings, but the result is paramount, and as it stands it’s a tasteful decision that doesn’t detract anything from the Viennese warmth of tone.  Here Boulez’s “excitement from clarity” trick makes the race to the finish (after the final brass chorale) especially thrilling, achieved while keeping the tempo completely constant, just as Mahler intended.

And finally, Boulez’s sense of structure.  The first movement is a case in point.  In the “first trio” (as some scholars have signposted) marked “Plötzlich schneller” (Suddenly faster), everyone else darts away in order to create a large contrast between the new tempo and the preceding one.  Boulez only speeds up marginally, to the effect that not only is every single detail revealed naturally, the sense of structure is also tauter and more defined.  And then there are the brass chorales.  The first one sees Boulez releasing all his energetic arsenal accumulated from the preceding moments in one of the most spectacular “Höhepunkt”s I’ve heard (clearly Boulez senses the energy in the second movement should be directed to that one climax), and in the second one, a refusal to hold back in the section marked “Pesante” while everyone else slows down.  Sure, it’s not as consciously heavy as it could have been slowed down, but Boulez certainly adheres to the score which does not specify a change in tempo until a few bars later.

Now comes the “but”.  Well there really aren’t many save for different preferences due to taste.  For one, the Adagietto’s length of 11 minutes seems to promise a deeply emotional experience while in reality the climax is pretty underdone.  More to the point, I had expected Boulez the avant-garde to give us a swift tempo just like Mahler purportedly took.  Nevertheless this is only one small reservation, and if you want to hear a heart-wrenching Adagietto you can always turn to Bernstein or Karajan.  What Boulez is, is an all-in-all superb Mahler 5th.

Symphony No. 6



  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No. 6
  • Performers:  Pierre Boulez (conductor);  Vienna Philharmonic
  • Label:  DG 445 835-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  79:22

The Boulez Mahler cycle started with this recording of the Sixth, which garnered two Grand Prix du disque prizes in 1995 and 1996, which at least shows the French press’ enthusiasm for this recording.  I’m not that enthusiastic, however.

The Sixth is the only Mahler symphony with a subtitle carrying an emotive adjective, in this case “Tragic”.  As you would expect, Boulez eschews the tragedy, but as I would not have expected, such a narrow emotional breadth makes it sound a bit hollow.  The notes are all there, and the Vienna Philharmonic as per usual plays splendidly, but there’s a certain strange vacuum to the expressive facet of this “dark night of the soul” of the Mahler symphonies that is most disconcerting, a much more obvious feeling than Boulez’s other Mahler recordings.  It’s not boring, far from that, but it is neutral, and unwaveringly so:  I find the finale completely flat.

But drama is not you want from Boulez, because if anything, he has the greatest sangfroid of any living conductor today.  So let’s turn to the detail department.  And I’m sorry to say that Boulez doesn’t reveal much detail that is ear-catching or revelatory:  it certainly isn’t significantly clearer than other recordings, and in some ways it’s even a reversal.  The woodwind lines in the Alma theme go for naught (unlike Tennstedt live), the percussion save the bass drum in the great horn howl at the start of the Finale is practically inaudible (unlike Bernstein), and the hammer blows are blended into the texture so well that there isn’t enough timbral differentiation between bass drum, gong and hammer (unlike, well, everyone else, and that makes Boulez sound pretty anticlimactic).  The timpani are significantly weaker than Boulez’s other Vienna Mahler as well.  This lack of clarity, therefore, fails to work the “excitement through clarity” that made the rest of his Mahler so fascinating, and as such it’s not terribly thrilling.

So its emotional detachment is strange, it’s not very detailed, and it’s not exciting.  But look at (or hear) things in the long line and things eventually become clear.  Boulez, it seems, wants us to be aware about the classical proportions throughout the work (the Sixth is often regarded as a return to classical form on Mahler’s part), not unlike Szell’s recording in a way.  Thus Boulez gives us a longer-than-usual first movement (at 23 minutes) and a swift last movement (at 29 minutes), to balance the symphony’s movements as if it were a gigantic Haydn symphony.  The result is a coherent, tightly knit symphonic argument throughout.  Heard with immense concentration in one sitting, this proportioning is immensely enriching and thought-provoking.  However, if you don’t have a concentration span of 80 minutes and would like to hear this movement now and that movement after you’ve taken a break, as I suspect would be the normal listening habits of many, you might find its lack of detail and low levels of emotional involvement less than illuminating.  Nevertheless I suspect most would enjoy it more than I did, so it deserves my recommendation if not unreservedly.

Symphony No. 7


  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No. 7
  • Performers:  Pierre Boulez (conductor);  The Cleveland Orchestra
  • Label:  DG 447 756-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  74:53

The sticker on the cover of my copy of this disc describes this performance as a “radical rethink”, and it very well is one; in fact, Boulez’s is a highly individual performance that has, as with the Second, divided opinion.  But the piece itself is not without controversy either, and I will go with Hurwitz who described it on Amazon as “Mahler’s most modern symphony.  The emotional impact of the music is less important than texture, orchestration, and musical architecture.  In short, it’s a highly abstract piece”.

What other conductor could clarify architecture, orchestration and texture better than Pierre Boulez!  In terms of pacing, Boulez gives us a pretty slow first movement that, while sounding a bit sectional at times and lacking the big sweep and long line of the even slower Tennstedt live, sweeps the cobwebs off oft-hidden lines and textures to a fascinating degree.  The swift Nachtmusiks are often described as “glib-throughs”, but one cannot discount the fact that they are exquisitely played and hued.  What I will say about the Scherzo is that I come back to this performance of it most often.  It’s just tremendous fun, and the woodwinds really shine.

I acquired this album mainly to hear what Boulez could make out of the problematic Rondo-Finale (at least it posed problems for many others; it was the first Mahler movement I was completely familiar with, which shows that (a) I was too unsophisticated, (b) I was stupid/clever to tackle the most problematic Mahler movement first and foremost, or (c) I really didn’t find any problems with it at all).  Boulez doesn’t attempt to solve these “problems”, but by pacing the various tempo/metre-changes so seamlessly, the impression is that of unusually high coherence, and by revealing so much detail in the process (the woodwind runs in the a tempo just before figure 225; how I wish I could hear so many in the Alma theme!), it’s purely mind-boggling.

This performance, then, is convicting as it is controversial, and with this performance we realize another facet of Boulez’s artistry.  Boulez dares to be different, not be different for different’s sake, but rather be different for what he believes is best for the music, in his artistic view, and by doing so proves his view to be a highly persuasive alternative.  I would rather hear a view that goes against the trend than one that goes with the flow but offers no new insight whatsoever, which is exactly the bane of so many modern performances.  This is a successful palate-cleanser and I definitely recommend this highly stimulating alternative to anyone wishing to know what difference can bring to the benefit of a more holistic appreciation of music.

Symphony No. 8


  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No. 8
  • Performers:  Twyla Robinson (soprano); Erin Wall (soprano); Adriane Queiroz (soprano); Michelle DeYoung (contralto); Simone Schröder (contralto); Johan Botha (tenor); Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone); Robert Holl (bass); Pierre Boulez (conductor); Staatskapelle Berlin; Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin; Rundfunkchor Berlin; Aurelius Sängerknaben Calw
  • Label:  DG 477 6597
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  85:16

Boulez’s Mahler cycle was completed with this Eighth, according to the sticker on the cover, which is of course not true because his recording of the Adagio of the Tenth was released not long later.  Perhaps on account of the criticism of the lack of organ in the previous installment, the Second, Boulez here retaliates with the most spectacular (digital) organ sound on disc.  The recording’s capturing of the organ pedals will literally rattle your room.

So what about the performance?  The Berlin Staatskapelle has been a pretty competent Mahler orchestra, what with superb performances of the Seventh and the Ninth under their music director Daniel Barenboim, and here, under Danny’s old friend, the orchestra continues to deliver a voluminous, idiomatic sound that suits this music perfectly.  The choirs sing very well, too, and the vocal soloists are never worse than competent (better than the contemporaneous Nagano sporting a truly terrible tenor soloist)–I appreciate the very sweet tones of the sopranos in Part II.  Boulez continues to clear up the textures and lines as usual, notably, in part I, the strings at the start of the Accende double-fugue, or the rising scales at the very end of Gloria sit Patri Domino.  He also observes Mahler’s tempo directions to the nth degree:  note the big climax in part I which Boulez shows no slowing in tempo, just as Mahler intended, unlike everyone else.  In part II an utterly transparent sound dominates, and the mostly chamber-like textures are clarified as if looking at the floor plan of a skyscraper, an example being the transition to the Chorus Mysticus in which the compact forces called for (flutes, harmonium, string quartet, harps) are effortlessly discernible.  The woodwinds in particular, normally obscured in other recordings, play their parts prominently.

This, then, is one of the most musically satisfying Mahler 8ths around.  Emotionally, however, it is a bit empty, and despite the breathtakingly pulchritudinous playing and textures, the closing pages of both parts notably fail to give you the goosebumps that Solti, Bernstein, Tennstedt and so on induce.  But with Boulez, that’s only something to point out, rather than a criticism, and if you want to hear his way, you should have been prepared for what’s in store already.  One of the better Mahler Eighths, certainly, and a few of the best recorded.

Das Lied von der Erde


  • Album name:  Mahler:  Das Lied von der Erde
  • Performers:  Violeta Urmana (mezzo-soprano);  Michael Schade (tenor);  Pierre Boulez (conductor);  Vienna Philharmonic
  • Label:  DG 469 526-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  60:31

This performance, as with the Mahler Second, is a highly idiosyncratic one that has (as with almost all of Boulez’s Mahler performances) attracted the criticism of being way too neutered to convey the music poignancy and yearning.  Standing in the polemics’ point of view, I should say that they have a point, especially compared to Bernstein’s exceptionally hot version, recorded 30 years ago with this same orchestra.  Therefore there isn’t much terror in the climax of the first movement, nor any superficial excitement in the central galloping eruption of the fourth movement, though I must say that the final stanza of Der Abschied is very radiant and rapturous, mostly due to Boulez’s slower tempo, ending the work in an atmosphere of transcendence and pure bliss.

But think about it:  if Boulez had delivered a performance as emotionally extravagant as Bernstein’s, it would be slightly frightening.  In fact, even without the emotional involvement, from a purely musical point of view Boulez’s is exemplary (though some may say that there is no distinction and no contradiction between emotional and musical values).  Boulez’s main strength in highlighting detail works mainly in intimate, more chamber-like textures, and since this work is full of them, there simply isn’t any nook or cranny in the textures and shadings that Boulez hasn’t made audible:  note the miraculous balancing in the climax of the second movement, the bouncy, jovial bassoons in the third, or the unusually prominent mandolin in the last.  Boulez also seems uncommonly generous with rubati this time round, as most of the middle movements would show.  As for the soloists:  Violeta Urmana sports a warm, velvety tone not far from Janet Baker or Christa Ludwig–no mean compliment–while Michael Schade is less impressive overall, and whether you like such a restrained, cushioned tone in some of Mahler’s most anguished and spiteful music for voice is entirely subjective (I much prefer King’s heroic gusto and Wunderlich candy-apple voice).

Sterile it is, then, almost surgically so, but its virtues (including the extraordinary playing of the Vienna Philharmonic of which I will not further elaborate here) are not things to be taken for granted or ignored, and overall its unusually clear textures and shading gives an aura of distilled purity that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else save Giulini.  A fine Das Lied to complement any collection.

Symphony No. 9


  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No. 9
  • Performers:  Pierre Boulez (conductor);  Chicago Symphony Orchestra
  • Label:  DG 457 581-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  79:46

Oh deary me.  During one blind test on my colleague Leonard, I let him hear a certain Mahler 9th which he described as passionate.  When, after many wrong guesses, he discovered that it was Boulez’s, he was rather shocked.  And so was I during my first hearing of this performance.  Sporting a huge emotional range, massive, gut-wrenching climaxes and some greatly searing playing, Boulez’s Mahler Ninth is just way too ardent.  I was expecting total emotional detachment, and now Boulez gives me this!  Utterly disappointing.

Before you go and read something else, I should point out that I’m not damning this performance because of that.  It does, in fact, benefit from Boulez’s virtues of structure, pacing and, to a lesser extent this time, detail.  Structurally, as always, Boulez looks at things in the long term, and he shapes this symphony into a top-heavy form, giving us a 29-minute first movement and a 21-minute last movement.  Considering the relative complexity of the first movement in comparison to the last (and therefore giving more time in the first movement for the more intricate details to make themselves discernible), this proportion strikes me as pretty cogent, even though that means in the finale you will miss a bit of that world-weariness and unbearable tension that so characterized Levine and Bernstein’s readings (both pretty slow, Levine in particular taking 30 minutes).  The first movement lacks nothing in heft or, as mentioned, passion (the second climax before the Tempo I subito after figure 6 has never sounded more heaven-storming as it has here), and the middle movement are at once sarcastic and bitter.  Hear the terrific bassoons at the end of the second movement and tell me where else you’ve heard such nihilism.  Speaking of the middle movements’ various tempo changes, Boulez doesn’t differentiate the tempo as greatly as most other conductors do (which means narrower contrasts), but structurally it sounds more cohesive, and the slower tempos allow a relatively greater amount of detail to emerge.

Ah, yes, detail, of which Boulez doesn’t reveal a lot as compared to most of his other Mahler, especially in the first movement which actually is a pretty good X-ray opportunity, though I should point out that nobody differentiates the dynamics of the two trombone blasts in the main climax as clearly as Boulez.  But then throughout the performance the woodwinds distinguish themselves pretty well, which (perhaps inadvertently) adds quite refreshing colors.  The brass play well as usual, and so do the strings.  In all, a well-played and well-structured Mahler 9th that isn’t really special or provoking enough to excite me.

Adagio from Symphony No. 10; Des Knaben Wunderhorn


  • Album name:  Mahler:  Adagio from Symphony No. 10; Des Knaben Wunderhorn
  • Performers:  Magdalena Kozená (mezzo-soprano);  Christian Gerhaher (baritone);  Pierre Boulez (conductor);  The Cleveland Orchestra
  • Label:  DG 477 9060
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  73:24

Look how congenial Boulez looks on the album cover!  Congenial, too, is Boulez’s approach to the two works featured in this program.  Des Knaben Wunderhorn is particularly enjoyable, a sunny and smiling performance, exhibiting quite a bit of bubbly joy and also some risk-taking often characterizing live concerts (the same performance is also available on DVD), notably the very slow pace of Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?, in which Kozená admirably conquers.  But it’s not all a bed of roses:  the darker colors of Das irdische Leben and Der Tamboursg’sell are not shied upon and, in the latter instance, sung characterfully by Gerhaher.

Then we come to the Adagio of the Tenth, which is expressively shaped, but as expected it’s not as tragic as Tennstedt’s, apocalyptic as Bernstein’s or warm as Abbado’s or Haitink’s.  Boulez treads the middle line, not as sterile or “offensive” as his previous Mahler, but still retaining his particular brand of textural clarity, even in the massive climax in the middle which is shocking as it is impressive.  The orchestra’s playing still retains its fullness of sound as it did for Boulez’s Mahler performances with the same orchestra, and the design of the disc and booklet (texts included) must be one of the most thoughtful and beautiful ones to have come out from DG in many a while.  A most satisfying release, sumptuously recorded.


Pierre Boulez’s Mahler cycle is surely one of the most radical, if not the most radical, Mahler cycle ever recorded, and as I have mentioned throughout my review, there is no guarantee that you will warm to his approach, no matter how cogent his views may be (and his views are almost invariably cogent).  Personally, I view it as a veritable landmark in the history of Mahler recordings, and Boulez’s progressive thinking of Mahler as the predecessor of musical modernism in the 20th century, rather than Mahler as a late romantic, shines a most revealing light on the dark side of the moon.  Like the scandalous première of Le Sacre du Printemps, I gather that at present many fail to understand Boulez’s intentions, but I suspect the stature of Boulez’s Mahler cycle, like the Stravinsky ballet, will grow over time.

Final thoughts?  The late Mahlerian Tony Duggan, I believe, has the last word:

“I’m enjoying the Boulez Mahler cycle. I may disagree on occasions with some of the things he does but I find I always want to know what he makes of this composer. Rather like sitting down for a long discussion with someone whose views you frequently disagree with but who you admire for their intelligence, breadth of experience and ability to put forward their case: even if you come away disagreeing with everything you have heard, at least you have been given a foundation on which to build your own views.”

Thank you, Maestro Pierre Boulez.


UPDATE:  Pierre Boulez’s Mahler cycle will be released as a 14-CD box set in October, which makes this richly insightful set more attractively priced for buyers (instead of having to collect it disc by disc).  All of Boulez’s Mahler recordings for Deutsche Grammophon will be included, so besides the “canonical” Mahler cycle as reviewed below, the three lieder cycles (Kindertoten, Rückert and Gesellen) as well as Boulez’s new Das Klagende Lied with the Vienna Philharmonic will feature in the box set.

–Jeremy Lee  9/5/2013


Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

4 thoughts on “A Consideration of Pierre Boulez’s Mahler Cycle

  1. Pingback: Top Ear’s 2nd Anniversary! | Top Ear

  2. Fascinating to read, and very helpful too. Though your enthusiasm for the cycle comes through, I find myself – as before – not sure if I can bear the icy calm alongside the wonderful detail! I have heard his ninth, so it’s disconcerting to find this is atypical…! As a long-time fan of the 2nd, I found the review there the least ‘objective’ – there’s little there apart from generalities to detail what’s bad (or good) about it 🙂
    Overall, it’s lovely to find someone young and enthusiastic who still wants to hear the greats of the past as well as of the present: I’ve just been listening to Klemperer’s 4th which I’d never heard before & was surprised by how good that was, as I’d been expecting Boulez-style calm… Still, what really grabbed my attention was the comparison of PB’s Lied to Giulini’s – wow, that’s a comparison I’d never have expected!! I now feel I HAVE to hear that. (How useful that I’ve always considered the tenor role as ‘comprimario’ so am not too worried about him not being too good! 🙂

  3. The characterization of the 4th as Mahler’s “chilliest” work makes no sense to me. Surely the third movement is or should be one of the moving sections Mahler ever wrote and the wonder and the naive beauty of the last movement can only be called chilly if one ignores the child and the wonder at the idea of heaven.

    But there are many rooms in Mahler’s house.

  4. I agree with Tom: I’ve played the 4th 3 times over the past week, the Bertini, the Herreweghe and the Fischer. This music is anything but chilly.

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