So, I had heard rumblings about the Mahler-Zyklus in Berlin this past April. This blog has a nice roundup, which is for the best, as I had other things on my mind this past April. I thought the combination of Barenboim and Boulez was a bit odd: having followed their recording careers, especially in Mahler, and having heard them both live, I can say that they come from different directions to Mahler. Boulez is looking backward, through the Neues Wiener Schule and the affection of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Barenboim, on the other hand, is coming down through the Germanic tradition and winding up in Mahler's oeuvre. There's also the issue of Barenboim's position as the spiritual heir of Furtwängler, which may or may not be the case; Boulez , though, has never been anyone except Pierre Boulez.
Thanks to the marvels of the Interweb, I have heard Boulez' 3rd and 8th from the Zyklus. In the case of the 3rd, I have his 2002 Vienna recording (DGG) to compare. Boulez is a bit broader in the first movement of the 2007 performance, and then falls in line with his recording the rest of the way out. Either you like his Mahler or you don't. It's clear, precise, and rhythmically articulate. There's a snap and muscularity to it, and when it isn't ruined by recording engineers (viz. the DGG 2nd vs. the live aircheck), he can make Mahler sparkle. With one caveat: Boulez tends to revert to clarity and speed when the emotional content gets heavy. He's better than usual in his Mahler cycle, but there are times when you wouldn't mind him relaxing his grip a bit. He could have let the 2nd breathe a bit, especially in the "big" moments, but - alas - he is still Boulez.
Then there are whole symphonies where the relaxation seems like a good idea. Namely, the 8th. His Berlin 8th clocks in at 1:23:12, longer than Horenstein (1959), Kubelik (1970), Solti (1972), and just about as long as Klaus Tennstedt's magical recording on EMI (1986). Boulez navigates the first part well: his predilection for precision and rhythmic clarity serve the massive hymn with its fugues and counterpoint well. It's a shame Boulez didn't do more Bach. The emotional and religious parts would be lost on him, it seems, but he'd shine in the rest - his Handel Wassermusik from New York is still my favorite. In the near-Wagnerian second half, Boulez is sensitive and powerful. He generates the electricity necessary to make it work, and he still manages to keep it from being a footrace to "Blicket auf" and the end. When he gets to the end, it's as ecstatic as it should be. Johan Botha deserves a small mention for turning in a heroic Doctor Marianus, by no stretch an easy tenor part. In every respect, this was a splendid performance of an unwieldy, complicated, and downright difficult symphony.
So, then, I await DGG's release of the 8th in a studio environment and with record-quality sound, which the aircheck certainly has, but is still obviously a live aircheck. Boulez can handle it, though I never completely and fully doubted that, and he can handle it well. Also, the Staatskapelle Berlin - from Barenboim's Warner 7th and 9th and the live Boulez 3rd and 8th - is apparently a first-rate Mahler orchestra. Something the Berliner Philharmoniker is only on occasion, when it suits them and the stars are right. Perhaps the Unter den Linden has the new powerhouse orchestra. Simon Rattle can't be doing much for the Philharmonie's usual residents. In any event, I'd hope to hear more from Barenboim's Staatskapelle.