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CD Review

Pierre Boulez Conducts

Gustav Mahler

  • Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
  • 5 Rückert Lieder
  • Kindertotenlieder
Thomas Quasthoff, bass-baritone
Violeta Urmana, soprano
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
Deutsche Grammophon 477532-9 DDD 61:26
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Béla Bartók

  • Concerto #1 for Piano & Orchestra, Sz. 83 (1926)
  • Concerto #2 for Piano & Orchestra, Sz. 95 (1931)
  • Concerto #3 for Piano & Orchestra, Sz. 119 (1945)
1 Krystian Zimerman, piano
2 Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
3 Hélène Grimaud, piano
1 Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
2 Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
3 London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
Deutsche Grammophon 477533-0 DDD 76:25
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Late in his career, Boulez has taken some unexpected paths. It was only natural that he would want to leave a more-or-less final word in the repertoire with which he has been associated for most of his career – Ravel, Debussy, the composers of the Second Viennese School, Bartók, etc. – but Mahler? Actually, Mahler has been part of Boulez's repertoire for some time, but his contributions were overshadowed by those of Leonard Bernstein, his immediate predecessor at the New York Philharmonic. Since Bernstein's death, Boulez has been committing more and more Mahler to disc. He might deny the cause-effect relationship implied by this last sentence, however.

Boulez's objectivity stands in contrast to the sometimes wild subjectivity of Bernstein. Boulez proves, however, that one doesn't need to be neurotic to conduct Mahler convincingly, and there are few more compelling proofs of this than the CD at hand. I've played this disc many times in the past several days, and each time I've found something new with which to be impressed. Boulez's analytical nature doesn't freeze the soul out of this music. If anything, it picks up where Bernstein left off. Now that Bernstein has our attention, one might say, Boulez is free quietly to examine the music's subtleties, as if in a microscope. He has no axe to grind with Mahler, just a thirst to approach the music with a fresh perspective, free of assumptions.

Quasthoff is one of the most impressive singers ever to record Songs of a Wayfarer. Like Fischer-Dieskau (in his Deutsche Grammophon recording with Rafael Kubelík), his identification with the sensitive youth is complete. He is less croony than Fischer-Dieskau, and his interpretation is less mannered, but his voice is just as imposing. His cries of "O weh! O weh!" in the third song come from the heart. In the Rückert Songs, Violeta Urmana pours out rich and even tone, and if her interpretation lacks the timelessness and individuality of Janet Baker's (for example), there's still much to enjoy in the timbre of her voice. Anne Sofie von Otter's restraint in Songs on the Death of Children reminds that death's sting is already in the past, even if the pain of regret remains in the present. Her voice is not a dark one, and so it is left to Boulez to darken the music's palette, and that he does, albeit with as much restraint as von Otter. Listen, though, to the start of the last song, and ask yourself when a conductor captured the moaning of the winter wind as painfully as Boulez has. Praise, then, to the Vienna Philharmonic as well, for their idiomatic contribution to this excellent new recording, which dates from June 2003. Texts and translations are included.

With three different pianists and three different orchestras, it is not surprising that the Bartók disc was recorded over three years – from November 2001 to October 2004, to be exact. I don't think there's any special reason why Piano Concerto #1 was recorded in Chicago, for example, or why Piano Concerto #2 was recorded with Andsnes and not with Grimaud. I'm guessing that these recordings were made in conjunction with live performances, and DG took advantage of the opportunities. Anyway, as with the Mahler disc, it is Boulez who gives this disc its strong backbone, fine as the three pianists are.

I'd be able to live happily with this CD, to the exclusion of competing versions. Zimerman is a little genteel in #1, but the clarity of his playing – one might even call it delicate – brings its own rewards. (In the slow movement, Zimerman's intermittent vocalise is picked up by the engineers.) A more prominently balanced orchestra adds excitement to #2 (although sometimes the piano is covered) and Andsnes plays with more impetuosity and percussiveness than Zimerman. In the third concerto, Grimaud echoes Zimerman's lighter touch, and an arch structure is created across this disc's 76 minutes. Even though this last concerto is a late work (indeed, the composer did not finish scoring the last movement), Grimaud paints it with the optimistic colors of spring. In all three works, Boulez brings out the Hungarian elements as if he were native born, and the orchestral contributions are memorably good. Atmospheric and rhythmically exacting, with sharp accents, hairpin curves, and plenty of paprika, this is how I like to hear Bartók's music being played.

Copyright © 2005, Raymond Tuttle