Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Notes toward a review of the Boulez Mahler 8th

I have now heard both this new recording, and the live aircheck from the Mahler-Zyklus last spring. I need a little more time to listen to both, digest both, and make some notes and comparisons. The studio recording, in particular, deserves attention - as his Mahler 2nd showed, Boulez-in-the-concert-hall and Boulez-in-the-studio seem to be different conductors.

I read an early review, by Dan Morgan at Musicweb International, and one passage jumped out at me.
It’s not just about weight and thrust, of course. Boulez seems to see this music as a precursor to Berg rather than a throwback to the 19th century. In that sense he finds a marvellous poise and transparency in the Faust setting in Part II, especially in the Poco adagio. Rarely has this music sounded so diaphanous. The Staatskapelle Berlin play with real unanimity, their every note and nuance clearly audible. So how does Boulez manage to make this music sound so frigid, so detached? Other conductors find an ethereal ‘otherness’ here without sacrificing overall warmth (Wit especially, with some unexpected sonorities).
In other words, Mr. Morgan is complaining because Pierre Boulez stuck to his well-known program of showing how music tends toward serialism. He did the same thing in Wagner, both in Parsifal and in Der Ring des Nibelungen (both at Bayreuth, as it happens). He has done largely the same thing at times in his Mahler cycle. About the only time where, if he has done it, it hasn't been obvious was his Bruckner 8th. It would be no surprise to find a structurally bare (i.e., architecturally transparent) and emotionally dry-eyed recording of any piece of music with Pierre Boulez at the stick, but - given the evidence - less so with Mahler.

I would not dispute the overall validity of Mr. Morgan's point, but I would, again, wonder why this is a surprise worth any note. Boulez can be startlingly (and happily) unidiomatic at times, like his 1971 performance of Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto with Sir Clifford Curzon, but - often as not - he is Pierre Boulez, regardless of the material on the podium. He is not Leonard Bernstein, and he is not Otto Klemperer. There are not going to be any histrionics, nor are there going to be any granitic monuments to his mentor and once-colleague. Boulez is going to follow the score to its most transparent, skeletal conclusion.

I said that I have heard the new studio 8th. It's in line, more or less, with the 2nd of some time ago. That is to say, at first blush, it is very clear and very architecturally delineated. The choral and vocal work is simply fabulous, and - after Daniel Barenboim's 7th and 9th - the Staatskapelle Berlin is showing itself to be a superior Mahler orchestra. It is, though, not Solti's recording or Kent Nagano's.

I think Boulez would rather, like Gustav Mahler himself, be considered a composer who conducts than a conductor who composes. It is, then, natural that his musical ideology and his style will make it to the pieces he conducts. It shouldn't be a surprise. I might say that Boulez might be the only non-Baroque specialist who could effectively sort out the polyphony and various structures of the first part. That clarity alone saves this record. This isn't my review. This is a comment about a review. The most exciting intellectual business of all.