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CD Review

Gustav Mahler

Symphony #9

Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
Deutsche Gramophon 457581-2
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Mahler's Ninth has been a very lucky symphony on record. It seems to bring out the best in all conductors and orchestras. Off the top of my head I can only think of one recording I have heard that I would advise people never to hear (and even that one isn't without some interest to Mahler obsessives like me.) That isn't to say every recording is beyond criticism, far from it. Leaving aside personal preferences, it seems that every recording I have heard is of a uniform standard of excellence I don't think can be found in other Mahler symphony recordings. Is the work "conductor proof", perhaps? No, not in the last analysis, but it certainly comes closer than the others if the many differing interpretations that are available is any evidence.

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.

It would be hard to imagine a "stand-alone" first movement better than this. In terms of tempo and pacing Boulez is exemplary in his overview. He is in the lower limits of Andante Comodo but avoids the problem too slow an overall tempo can bring: that of losing the sense of the unfolding story Mahler surely intended but nevertheless permitting himself to attend to the many details of tempo, dynamics and, yes, expression the score demands. This latter point may strike detractors of Pierre Boulez as a surprising point to make: "The Ice Man" capable of expression ? Well, yes, he is. Quite a lot, and not just in this work – in his other Mahler recordings also. It's not the expression of a conductor whose agenda is to place himself between us and the music, using it as a means of laying bare his own neuroses or exhibiting his own ego (like Bernstein or Tennstedt) or a ruthless exhibitor of, largely pointless, orchestral virtuosity (like Solti), but one who is anxious to do the composer justice by stressing the expressive qualities already there. In that what Boulez brings to this movement is the eye of the lawyer matched to the mind of the alchemist. Though it has to be said his timing for this movement does set him a conundrum that he just fails to solve later on in the work. But more of that when the time comes.

In the opening pages I was struck by the clarity Boulez brings to the initial statement of the material that are the building bricks of this movement, doubly remarkable for the extremes of pianissimo that he coaxes from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Few orchestras could have managed to be so clear and yet so quiet at the start. Clarity is often used pejoratively when discussing Boulez and Mahler, but here I see no conflict between clarity and expression. Boulez understands that for this vast structure to survive in our minds after it's over and, more importantly, for it to mean something profound to us, the key is for us to be made aware immediately of the different possibilities that exist within its thirty or so minutes and the way to do that is firmly to establish in our minds the profound differences between the basic ideas on which the structure of the movement is founded. It is only as these basic ideas are changed by Mahler, in ways vast and extraordinary, in the course of the movement that those possibilities are made plain. Without profound knowledge of where these ideas came from and how they started life can we appreciate the changes they go through.

Of these basic ideas, presented in the first few bars of the movement in a passage prefiguring the concision of Webern (and remember that Boulez is on record as stating that his own approach to Mahler came via the Second Viennese School), Boulez invests what is always called the "Lebwohl" theme – the falling seconds that themselves form a germinal part of the movement's main theme (itself a slow transformation of the Johann Strauss's waltz "Enjoy Life") – with a special depth that, for me, throws a dark shadow over the whole movement each time it recurs. It leaves me in no doubt that it is "leave-taking" Boulez stresses in this movement. In the Exposition as a whole our awareness of the differences between the main ideas then become consanguineous with the careful marking of the subtle tempo changes that ebb and flow, passage to passage, as the music's grand vistas open out. Note, for example, the strict observation by Boulez (at 80-107) of Mahler's instruction "Etwas frischer" ("A little brisker"), hurrying us into the development as if Mahler is anxious to get on with the main business of the moment. Only by carefully preparing the ground beforehand do such changes register. It's a perfect example of not just his attention to the detail of the score but that important next stage: what the details mean, how they fit in with the whole. Another example of his care for detail and its place in the whole can be found in the Development at 267 where we really are aware of the tempo picking up, just as indicated (and note also the fine contributions from the woodwind around here). Then the crucial fatal climax at 314-315 where the trombones roar out the opening notes of the whole work, taking us to the very depths of this movement's world of feeling and knitting the movement together in its simplest deep structures. I had never before been quite so aware of the difference in dynamics between the two statements by the trombones here, but a look at the score shows that they are and that Boulez is aware of that and wants us to be too.

The same care for the letter and its bearing on the spirit of the score is to be found in Boulez's reading of the second movement. On first hearing, at the very start, I was a little disappointed that Boulez doesn't get his strings to really dig into the landler rhythm. It sounds rather tame, polite, and so it is in comparison with old hands like Walter, Klemperer and Horenstein. But it turns out that Boulez has a slightly different agenda in this movement. He seems principally concerned for us to understand the clear contrasts between the various tempi Mahler asks for – Tempo I, Tempo II, Tempo III are all there in the score and Boulez observes each one very particularly, so you are left in no doubt when each one comes back which, in turn becomes even more fascinating when each episode starts to "swap" tempos around – like old friends trying on each other's clothes. It's an absorbing but unsettling ride through the movement and it deserves to be heard as a real alternative to the usual ethnic dance.

I started to have some doubts about this recording when the Rondo Burleske began. Mahler writes "Sehr Trotzig" ("Very stubborn") after "Allegro assai" and, truth to tell, under Boulez it isn't really. A slightly slower tempo would have made a difference and a little more mania from the woodwinds too. These are very great players and they seem to be champing at the bit right through the recording to be given their heads.

They don't shriek and gibber as they might or pierce through the texture enough to give the unhinged quality this movement needs. We need more Burleske to the Rondo Burleske! For are we not here in the presence of the Viennese gossips, critics, enemies and detractors who drove Mahler to despair and distraction and eventually out of Vienna itself? (The departure that led Klimt to announce at the station as he and the entire artistic community watched Mahler depart for New York: "It's over"?) If we are then, under Boulez, the poisonous hoi polloi in the coffee houses are a little bit too polite, to these ears at least.

Then at bar 347 there begins what would, if this was a conventional Scherzo, be the Trio. Constantin Floros calls this wonderful section "the music from far away", for Deryck Cooke it's "a visionary interlude".

There is a crucial truth about conducting this episode and it all hinges on the tempo or, as so often in Mahler, the way the chosen tempo also relates to what is around it. Play it too fast and the poetic beauty of the section is dissipated; play it too slow and the structural integrity of the movement is undermined. So it's a very fine judgement based on the speed of the section itself and that of the main Rondo material that has preceded it. (Haitink, notably, judges all this to perfection in his Philips recording.) This section in this Boulez recording is, for me, a defining moment because Boulez appears to opt to maintain the structure by taking this passage at a tempo that I think robs it of much of its potential beauty and nostalgic power. In fact this apparent clearheadedness on Boulez's part serves as a warning for what is to come in the last movement. This is as it should be, I suppose, because this exercise in nostalgia is a pre-echo of the Adagio fourth movement with specific themes connecting. So, in that, Boulez is at least logical if disappointing.

When dealing with the first movement I said Boulez's reading of it, though nearly ideal, sets a conundrum that he fails to solve later, and it's his performance of the last movement I have in mind.

Mahler's Ninth is "top heavy": the scope and length of the first movement is such that, for the whole symphony to achieve some balance, the last movement really ought to match it in weight and length. (The Tenth Symphony is a much better structured work in this instance.) If it doesn't, as here, the effect is to unbalance the work in favour of the first movement, not allowing the Adagio to crown the work and let it stay in our minds as silence succeeds it at the close. There is a fastidiousness about Boulez's handling of the last movement, almost as if he doesn't want us to be too involved and the overall tempo is just too fast for it to really move. True, it's slower than Bruno Walter in 1938, but Walter's performance there is balanced by a very much quicker first movement, as well as a different performing tradition in the orchestra. Barbirolli is at the faster end of Adagio too (both in Berlin and New York) but his first movement Andante is much more "walking pace" as well, so he has gone some way to solving the "top heavy" problem. So, with the Adagio under Boulez, it's back, among other things, to the old tempo relationship point – though this time across movements rather than within them. Within the last movement, Boulez's more mobile Adagio is beautifully proportioned.

It's surprising that Boulez, so aware and so alive to such things elsewhere, seems to fail to appreciate this. For that reason I can only believe this is not oversight but a very deliberate attempt to achieve some kind of emotional distance. Don't misunderstand me. The last movement is a fine reading in many ways – noble and beautifully played – but it does fail to compliment the first movement in the way that many other interpreters make it. The closing pages, for example, fail to really leave you desolate.

A minor disappointment, then, in a recording I would still warmly recommend, especially to someone coming new to the work and wanting a superbly played and recorded performance with every detail of this massive score clearly laid out. (On one disc also.) You get a marvellous impression of the complexity of the scoring.

The playing of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is exemplary – beyond praise: not a note out of place, not an entry fluffed, utterly secure, commanding, every dynamic sifted and refined, exactly what you would expect. But not, in the last analysis, really a Mahler sound. It sounds like damning such fabulous playing with faint praise but I prefer something a little more humane and fallible: more rounded, warmer, softer grained. What a pity Boulez didn't record the Sixth Symphony in Chicago rather than Vienna – what a recording that would have been. The famous brass sound, whilst still very lean and powerful, is thankfully reigned back much more these days and only the trumpets, when full out, have that rather cold, glassy tone alien in Mahler. The strings deliver nowhere near the portamenti Mahler frequently asks for. When they do it's almost with a sense of apology. Though I'm sure this is down to Pierre Boulez. What would they sound like under a conductor who demanded buckets of portamenti: a Barbirolli, a Walter or a Horenstein? What the Chicago strings can do superbly is differentiate the gradations of dynamics, probably with more accuracy than most, if not all, orchestras. Sumptuous recording too. An ideal (almost Utopian) concert hall balance which is a touch artificial but with every detail registering equally.

Copyright © 1999, Tony Duggan