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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das klagende Lied (1898/99 version) [35:36]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Lulu-Suite* [28:56]
*Anna Prohaska (soprano); Dorothea Röschmann (soprano); Anna Larsson (contralto); Johan Botha (tenor)
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Wiener Philharmoniker/Pierre Boulez
rec. live, July 2011, Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg.
German text and English and French translations included
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 9891 [64:34]

This disc preserves the programme that Pierre Boulez conducted to open the 2011 Salzburg Festival. It’s a shrewd, if unexpected, pairing of works. According to Harald Hodeige’s booklet note, it was when Berg attended the 1901 première of Das klagende Lied that he fell under the spell of Mahler’s music, of which he became thereafter an enthusiastic advocate.
Pierre Boulez has steadily been working his way through Mahler’s music on disc for DG, though this is the first of his recordings that I’ve heard. However, I believe that Das klagende Lied may have been one of his earliest forays into Mahler’s output. He made a recording of it many years ago for CBS Sony, possibly as early as 1991, though I don’t believe that recording is now widely available. I don’t know whether in that earlier recording he incorporated Part I, ‘Waldmärchen’ (Forest Legend), but it’s not included here. In many ways that’s a pity. It’s true that Mahler’s original three-part scheme does sprawl a little – ‘Waldmärchen’ is nearly as long as the other two parts put together and it does ramble a bit. On the other hand, omitting the first part of the story makes little dramatic or narrative sense. It’s been interesting to appraise Boulez’s new recording not long after reviewing another live performance, which did include ‘Waldmärchen’; that was a 1981 performance conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky.
Mahler wrote both the text and the music for this early cantata. He based the text on a story that he found in an anthology of German folk tales, onto which he grafted some elements of a tale by the Brothers Grimm. The first part, which we don’t hear in this performance, sets the scene, telling of two brothers who set out into the forest to find a flower; the queen has promised to marry whoever can find and bring her a specimen of the flower in question. The younger brother finds the flower but is murdered by his sibling who steals the flower and sets off to claim the queen. In Part Two, ‘Der Spielmann’ (The Minstrel), the minstrel of the title comes across a bone from the murdered young man. He makes it into a flute which, when played, tells the story of the murder. In Part Three, ‘Hochzeitstücke’ (Wedding Piece), we see the wedding of the elder brother and the queen but the minstrel spoils the party by arriving and playing his flute. When the brother accuses him of the murder the queen’s castle falls to the ground and the tale comes to a tragic end.
The very first impression I had of this Boulez performance was that the orchestral opening, which is characteristically clear and precise, sounded a little cool and insufficiently red-blooded: it was not until the second stanza of the tale (track 2) that things seemed to get cracking. However, when subsequently I listened through headphones I felt that I had misjudged the opening; it’s much more alert and lively than I’d first supposed. As the tale unfolds the performance has excellent drive and dramatic thrust. Indeed, at the tumultuous start of ‘Hochzeitstücke’ I wrote in my notes “can this be P[ierre] B[oulez]?” In these pages he gets the orchestra to portray excitingly the pageantry of the festivities in the castle while the choir sings vividly. In fact, despite his reputation for coolness and objectivity I detected no lack of drama and flair in Boulez’s reading of the score as a whole. Yet at the same time his fabled ability to clarify musical textures is very much in evidence.
Making some comparisons between the Boulez and Rozhdestvensky recordings was quite an interesting process. Leaving to one side the fact that Boulez offers an incomplete version of the score, there are pluses and minuses on both sides. Boulez enjoys the more refined recorded sound; after all, Rozhdestvensky’s recording is over twenty years old and was not originally intended for commercial release. The BBC Symphony Orchestra plays extremely well for Rozhdestvensky; they respond to his urgent, dramatic direction with playing that is often red-blooded and exciting. However, the playing of the Wiener Philharmoniker is even more distinguished while lacking no excitement. Both choirs do well though I have a slight preference for Rozhdestvensky’s chorus, which may be a bit larger than the Viennese ensemble.
Each set has one stand-out soloist. For Rozhdestvensky, Robert Tear sings very well indeed, bringing great commitment to the tenor role. However, there’s no denying that the demands of the part are cruel and one senses that Tear is stretched to his limits at times. By contrast Boulez has, in Johan Botha, a tenor who has essayed many of the big Wagner and Strauss roles, and it shows. He clearly has far greater reserves of vocal power at his disposal than the valiant Tear. However, the tables are turned when it comes to the contralto role. In her first few phrases it seemed to me that Anna Larsson’s vibrato was causing some notes to spread, slightly to the detriment of pitch. However, she soon settles and she offers a good deal of expressive, full-toned singing. However, Rozhdestvensky has an ace up his sleeve in the form of Dame Janet Baker. She is simply outstanding, singing all her music with a combination of great intensity and great intelligence. I consider that she is much more exciting to hear in this piece even than the excellent Miss Larsson.
Writing of Rozhdestvensky’s direction I said that “[his] conducting is full of energy and dramatic thrust. He knows this is a melodramatic tale so there’s no point in underplaying things.” As I indicated earlier, I was surprised – pleasantly so – at the extent to which Boulez conducts with energy and dramatic flair. I think his Russian rival, whose speeds are a notch faster at several points in the score, achieves a narrow victory on points but no-one who hears this Boulez performance will feel short-changed by the conductor. There’s a revealing quote in the booklet from some years back. Boulez apparently described Das klagende Lied as “a theatre of the mind, with actual stage effects applied to the concert hall.” I feel he’s appropriately theatrical in this performance yet the music is, as you’d expect from this conductor, always carefully controlled.
For his coupling Boulez offers Berg’s Lulu-Suite. I’m afraid Berg’s music is an area of the repertoire with which I find it hard to get to grips – and well-nigh impossible to love – though I’m sure the fault is mine. Perhaps I would appreciate it more if I heard many more performances such as this one. The orchestral playing throughout is delivered with fastidious clarity and scrupulous attention to detail. There are a few conductors, such as Salonen and Rattle, who have a wonderfully acute ear for texture and balance but I’m not sure that anyone equals Boulez in this regard. Yet his most impressive achievement, I think, is to elucidate detail without losing sight of the bigger picture; and so he opens the music up for the listener to enjoy either in close-up or in panoramic overview – or both. My listening notes for this recording are liberally sprinkled with phrases such as “gorgeous, delicate sounds”; “wonderful, subtle playing”; “utmost refinement” and so on. Remember, these are the notes of someone who doesn’t really like Berg’s music!
The opening, ‘Rondo’, is a kaleidoscope of musical ideas and Boulez is an absolute master of such scores. I really don’t feel I can comment on the ‘Lied der Lulu’ movement since the angular vocal line leaves me cold. So far as I can tell Anna Prohaska is completely undaunted by the taxing vocal part. She returns in the final pages of the concluding ‘Adagio’ to sing a fragment as the Countess Geschwitz. Before she sings in that movement Boulez and the Wiener Philharmoniker have given a fabulous account of the preceding six minutes of music. This is music that takes over where Mahler’s Ninth leaves off. Aided by richly atmospheric orchestral playing, Boulez unfolds it marvellously, making fine sense of Berg’s music. When the fearsome, dissonant climax erupts (4:53) Boulez unleashed it thrillingly and then controls the ferment expertly.
As I’ve indicated earlier, the recorded sound on this disc is excellent – the offstage band in the Mahler is expertly distanced. Boulez is a splendid guide to both these scores and if you don’t mind having a foreshortened account of Das klagende Lied this disc is a compelling proposition.
John Quinn