Surprisingly there are are very few genuine Mahler cycles. Most are compilations put together by marketing people to sell fancy boxed sets. But Mahler, more than any other composer, wrote with surprising consistency. It's been jokingly suggested that his entire opus constitutes one huge symphony. To use Boulez's term, Mahler "has trajectory", a purposeful direction even if the outcome is never guaranteed. Right from the beginning, we hear a distinctive voice. Again and again, Mahler 's preoccupations are explored in different ways : light and darkness, death and transcendence. A true Mahler cycle is an opportunity to hear how the ideas develop. The problem is that very few conductors get a chance to do the whole oeuvre with the same orchestra in a short period of time. That's why the Carnegie Hall cycle of Mahler symphonies which starts today in New York is so interesting.
Boulez and Barenboim have been doing Mahler series in Berlin for several years. With each new performance, their ideas develop. Now Boulez and Barenboim have taken the Berlin Staatskapelle to New York. Two conductors, yes, but they've been working together on the concept with this orchestra for a long time. This is probably as close as it gets to a true cycle as is practical. The division of material is thoughtful, too.
The cycle starts with Barenboim conducting Symphony No 1. Like his hero, Mahler is striding out into the unknown, confidently overcoming obstacles in his way. It's a young man's symphony, full of bravado, so even Gergiev's one dimensional bluster expressed valid points. The three more mature Wunderhorn symphonies are a more sophisticated prospect altogether. Boulez will be conducting all three in succession. Death to resurrection in the Second and Fourth Symphonies, but in very different ways. How will the Third fit in? It, too, can be a journey from trudge to exultation. It's more nature-oriented, harking back to the early songs and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen which the First quotes, but not in quite the same way. Boulez will also be conducting the Sixth and Eighth Symphonies connecting yet again to ideas of spiritual growth. Of course similar ideas inhabit the Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Das Lied von der Erde, but Barenboim's take thereon is going to be different, though he's known Boulez's exceptionally lucid Mahler for many years.
THIS is a link to the Carnegie Hall site with quite good programme notes.
For a preview of what this cycle might be like, look at Mark Berry's blog Boulezian, and go back to April 2007 to see what he wrote about the Berlin series. Perceptive writing, very informative. I attended only the Eighth with Boulez, but it was one of the great experiences of my life. Many of my friends will be at the concerts (all of them !) so I might update this with reports. But read Mark on boulezian.blogspot, he's very good !