GUSTAV MAHLER (1860-1911)Symphony No.9

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Pierre Boulez

March 1998 release

[79:23] full-price

by Roy Chan

THE SYMPHONIES of Gustav Mahler have always presented musicians and sound engineers constant challenges. While the teutonic length and scope, fearsome virtuosity and astounding depth of the music are something nearly impossible to put off totally in the former, the clarity of the kaleidoscopic timbre within the vast canopy of colour, shades and tone requires the keenest ears, integrity and solid musical training to attain.But the Ninth has always been something special, something unique. Like Das Lied (von der Erde) and the unfinished Tenth, this valedictory symphonic piece were written at a time when the composer was no longer searching for the existence of God – as in the Wunderhorn series, or confronting, denying and eventually succumbing to Death’s omnipotent power in the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies. Mahler had finally learned to accept his destiny and strove to achieve as much as possible, as soon as possible. “I do not wish to die, but I have no choice. I have and will live to enjoy life till the very end and I am glad that the world goes on without me.” – this is the rubric of this masterpiece – and Mahler’s last message to mankind.
This is the inexplicable human essence that makes every recording of the Ninth special, so much so that every different interpretation offers diverse but cogent meanings.
Pierre Boulez‘s Mahler Ninth Symphony on DG has raised the eyebrows of many music lovers in the broadest manner possible, with reactions ranging from heartfelt admiration to unforgiving damnation forming the basis of many reviews in music magazines and websites. Has the French conductor proven himself a torchbearer of the great Mahler tradition initiated by legendary Mahler conductors like Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Jascha Horenstein, John Barbirolli, Dmitri Mitropulous or Leonard Bernstein? Or is this ensuing cycle of his a fiasco? My verdict stands somewhere in between. While it is undeniable that his interpretation is controversial, it is not without merit. Let’s turn to the recording for a discussion.

Boulez is noted as saying that his approach towards Mahler comes via the Second Viennese School. With this, he provides us a guide towards understanding his unique interpretation, and essential in finding its worth. Let me assure the readers in due regard the extent at which form, tone, shades and colours are brought out, he is unrivaled – and not at the expense of passion. Why? Because the Ninth is such an intrinsically emotional masterpiece that even through a deliberate injection of objectivity, there are still some emotions left that exist predominantly within the melodies. My only question, however, is whether this is a case of “too much too soon”. Not that Boulez is incapable of extracting more feelings. It is just that this recording does not represent very well what I think his intentions are, and thus, oddly, ceases to satisfy where it counts most. But more on this later.

Boulez highlights the placidity of the hushed opening at first, while effectively intermingling it with a grim, “music from faraway” feeling. Delightful it is, the way he allows the strings to urge forward, coaxing them to sound like sighs and whispers which add weight and a subtle sense of weariness and trepidation. Then suddenly, one experiences a shift of perspective – from that “other” world right into Mahler’s spiritual sphere of pain and conflict with the entry of 2nd violins (Bar 6). It is as if he is trying to pacify the sufferer and mitigates the excruciating pain. It may not be as immediately life threatening as Bernstein’s, as transcendental as Walter’s or as passionate as Barbirolli’s here, but he does have new and interesting things to say, following the terse fashion of the Second Viennese School composers (eg. Webern or Berg), which prove to be illuminating along the way.

Note that he allows the blaring F trumpet to cut through the intertwining texture, an insightful gesture which will assume great significance with its every appearance. At this point, I would like to draw the readers’ attention to Bar 80 (~5:48) where Mahler had marked Etwas frischer (“Somewhat livelier”).

Boulez On first hearing, I was rather shocked to find Boulez emphasising the “Somewhat” rather than “livelier”. Only later did I realize his purpose when he reveals its meaning at Bar 110 (~7:20): Tempo I.subito (aber nicht schleppend/ but not dragging). By imposing strict discipline on the earlier phase, Boulez achieves a smooth transition into the latter, whose markings usually cue for an unindicated deceleration, and consequently avoids a feeling of deflation and drag.

Even more importantly, however, is the appearance of an unhindered flow into the first “down” point of the first movement Bar 130 (~8:30) (Pltzlich sehr mig und zurckhaltend/ Suddenly very moderate and held back), a twilight zone of solemn and withdrawn mood. Here, the eerie and primal sounding two-note flute figure hovering impressively over the atmosphere, whose effect is not unlike that of the call of the “Bird of Death” in the last movement of “Resurrection” symphony. The buildup to the climax of the movement is superbly managed and Boulez is perhaps the first conductor to unearth the frequently obscured dynamics difference between the two trombone calls at Bar 314 (fff) and 318 (ff).

But even when I was marvelling at the crystalline orchestral details (the scoring really seems much more alive), I feel that he is let down by the orchestra here. It is true that the playing is note-perfect, but they lose to the great Mahler orchestras (VPO, Concertgebouw) at certain critical moments where extreme gentleness, sweetness, calmness and flow are needed – they are not “dolce” enough when the music and mood calls for it. Notable examples being the eloquent theme played by the two solo violins at Bar 267 (~17.16) which is ironically a transformation of one of Johann Strauss’ waltz theme “Enjoy Life;” and especially in the closing pages (Wieder a tempo) where the horns and solo violin in particular, marked “dolcissimo”, is unsatisfying.

Disregarding these (minute?) imperfections, and we have one of the finest first movement on record – good enough to serve as a textbook model of technical/orchestral and musical balance, and an outstanding example how clarity and emotion can coexist on the same plane without compromise. So perhaps only the most seasoned listeners should disdain this?

Mahler The traditional Austrian Lndler is given a new outlook by Mahler who often uses it in his symphonies. The German dance plays a particularly significant role here for it forms the building blocks of the entire second movement. There are altogether three kind of dances – a normal Lndler which Mahler designated the markings “Im Tempo eines gemchlichen Lndlers” (“in a comfortable Lndler tempo”); “Etwas tppisch und sehr derb” (“somewhat clumsy and very coarse” — marked as Tempo I, followed by a savage, loose limbed fast waltz “Poco pi mosso subito (Tempo II)”, and lastly a very slow LndlerLndler, ganz langsam (Tempo III)”.

That the structural and musical aspects of the entire movement revolves around the repetition, fragmentation and recombination of these dances (there is one point towards the end where Mahler actually fused all three dances into one) establishes itself as a signficant position as a “Dance movement” among the eleven symphonies.

In my previous Mahler 9th reviews, I have stated the importance of its “Austrian” character, the awkwardness and roughness the composer asked for and how a lack of these qualities could render the performance unsuccessful. Strangely Boulez has chosen to ignore these “universal truths” – after showing us how towering the first movement can be through a strict compliance to the markings,he then proceeds to do it in an utterly distinctive fashion. And even more strangely, it works!

What is so admirable of Boulez’s Ländler is that not only is he able to find a conspicuously steady tempo the movement, he makes sufficient disparity to separate the multiple tempi dances. What emerges is a voyage of clear mindedness, of knowing exactly what comes next – quite simply an astonishing display of control, a tour de force. The limpid texture also enables us more awareness of the “disintegration” process, not just through a change of dynamics or any markings, but through the ORCHESTRATION. So it is not traditional Mahler some might say. Personally, however, it is interesting, not to say fulfilling, to hear a different reading than one is used to.

When Mahler wrote the vehement Rondo-Burleske, he also added the subscription, in the manuscript score, “Meinen lieben Brüdern in Apoll” (“To my dear brothers in Apollo”). These brothers, referring to his critics-colleagues, however, Mahler did not love. It is a movement where sarcasm, violence, mockery and liberal stubbornness are the order of the day.

Once again this is not what Boulez had in mind. But this time, I am regretful to announce, Boulez is at once too polite and swift here. This is a movement where one should prepare to take a risk and give all out without any reservation. Some of the most staggering accounts I have heard sound as if everyone is hanging on a thread – just! This is one of those rare examples where I think absolute control does not automatically guarantee optimal results.

Yes, it is indeed very exciting and energetic throughout. But anyone who is familiar with the music would soon realise a lack of those interweaving “negative” effects. Nevertheless, I do like the fluidity of tender middle interlude (Bar 348) (~5.53). The dark and mellow timbre of the woodwinds is rightfully given ample space to resonate within, and their overall contrast with the snarl of the muted brass and weighty string sound is truly telling. The virtuosity of the Chicago players really pays dividend here as the stupendous playing erupts with great commitment and flair.

Detail from 'Hunters in the Snow' by Peter Brueghel the Elder Finally we arrive at the last and most difficult part of the work to conduct. Never have I heard such mortal determination to finish this last journey. Here Boulez presents Mahler, a man fully in grip over his own mortality, now since having accepted death as a friend, and is ready to bid farewell to his family and friends. What we have here is an Adagio without a tinge of sadness or nostalgia; but the vision of a peaceful future in a single, stoical stretch.

Allow me to demonstrate this opinion with juxtaposition. Most conductors approach this movement in a “questioning” manner, etc. seeing Mahler as a dying man who was intrigued by questions like “why live?”, “why love?”, “why hate?”, “why die?”. And it is through asking such questions that one need to look back to the past for answers – thus arise bitterness and nostalgia. Then there are some conductors who believe that Mahler had already found the answer and was saved (in heaven?).

I think Barbirolli and Bernstein fall into the former category, while Walter tends towards the latter. Boulez fits, on the other hand, in the “somewhere in between” space – after “questioning” and before arriving at the “answer”. I think Boulez clearly feels that much of Mahler’s own doubts have been questioned somewhere along the long journey spanning the earlier three movements.

The “three farewells” in the last movement are not really given any special distinguished treatment in that they do not feel as despaired or as gravely as, say, Bernstein’s but firm and implacable. Interestingly, just to point one among the many examples, Boulez does recognise the importance the role of an instrument – namely the F-trumpet. This time the exceptional F-trumpet call after the third and true climax of the entire work at Bar 141 (~16.02), acts like a final outburst of life just before the eventual disintegration. In my opinion Barbirolli understood and perfected this unique phrase like no one whose combination of delicateness, scoff and wistfulness never fail to bring tears to my eyes.

Boulez also understood its importance and imparts sufficient prominence to it though he is not as convincing as Barbirolli. Overall, Boulez delivers a logical conclusion to what went before which is by all means a valid philosophical viewpoint. The only problem is does it feel as good as it sounds?

There are many who feel that Boulez’s reading does not really carry sufficient emotional weight to firmly plant an impression; thus subsequently adding on top of an uncompromising spiritual toughness, a remoteness that has been a source of turn off for many reviewers (and listeners). While I do not totally disagree, I feel that once again the timbre quality of the orchestral instruments should be taken into account also.

boulez2.jpg 132x225 Had Boulez make this recording with VPO, their soft grained, luscious string tone (and with perhaps a slightly slower pace) might have made a difference altogether – probably more readily acceptable. Don’t misunderstand me. The Chicago strings are definitely passionate, glowing and possess an unerring sense of dynamics graduation. But they just lack that ultimate degree of emotional sophistication to be reckoned the finest. This is far from the most stirring last movement I have ever heard (that would have to be the Barbirolli) but even then, I still absolutely sated with this version.

On the whole, this is an account that as moving (at least the first three movements) as it is controversial. The recorded sound, while not spectacular and apparently multi-miked, is warm, cosy and suitably atmospheric with minimal reverberation. The orchestral playing as pointed out, though not superlative, is more than adequate to sustain the numerous technical difficulties the work requires though there are occasional shrills from the strings. It certainly would not displace those recorded by the established Mahler giants, but I feel that it should serve well as a great alternative and ought to be heard by everyone before laying any judgement, and certainly a place on every Mahlerian’s shelf.

Mahler 9th Symphony in Full Score (Dover Edition)

Roy Chan thought that the CD cover pictures of the Boulez’s Mahler cycle looks really awesome!

697: 14.4.2000 Roy Chan

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