Saturday, 2 October 2010

Boulez Mahler 10 Cleveland

Pierre Boulez, the Cleveland Orchestra and Mahler - perfect partners. Their recording of Mahler's Seventh Symphony is outstanding, one of the landmark performances in the whole discography. Immediate alert then for Boulez's return to Severance Hall in this live recording from February 2010.

What spark! This zips along, crackingly vivid and spontaneous. Mahler delighted in the quaint charms of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, but anyone listening to the Wunderhorn symphonies can hear what sophisticated use he made of them. Mahler transformed cute to cosmic. Bucolic humour yes, but no delusions If kitschy-folksy is what you want from Mahler you'll probably get a shock from the sharp, sardonic wit of these performances. But what light they shed on the symphonies!

Understand the songs, and you learn the fundamentals of Mahler's output. It's not just the way song themes weave through the early symphonies, but the whole idea of symphonic construction based on cells of song, elaborated and expanded. "One long trajectory from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen to Das Lied von der Erde and beyond", someone once said - I think Boulez but can't check. In any case, Boulez learned his Mahler 60 years ago from the songs upwards. Boulez's Mahler is important because he understand the essential structural foundations.

Magdalena Kožená and Christian Gerhaher sing twelve songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  Much as I love Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau (my first Mahler), their emphasis was on words first, music as support. Hence the self-conscious quaintness. Ludwig and Berry even "act" the songs on the video released a while back. Kožená and Gerhaher adhere, instead, to a more "musical" perspective.  Kožená's particularly interesting, because she has an extremely bright, crisp tone which works well with the Clevelanders's lucidity. Gushily sentimental Wunderhorns you can hear anytime, but this one's different because Kožená sounds like a soloist in the orchestra. You're listening to how she interacts with the orchestra..

But the songs on this recording are no match for the performance of the Adagio from Mahler's Tenth Symphony.  This is brilliant in every sense - how the strings in  particular gleam and shine!

Sinuous introduction that reaches outwards - the shepherd's mournful tune from Tristan und Isolde, perhaps? The connections are apposite, given the "to live for you, to die for you, Almschi" connotations. Notice how the winds repeat the theme again, just as in the opera, Mahler's personal favourite, which he never delegated to other conductors. Thus the powerful, surging undercurrents that Boulez brings from the Clevelanders, swelling like the tides in an ocean drawn by the moon. This is the heartbeat of the movement, surging and ebbing - you almost feel the physical presence of Mahler, who wasn't to know then what his heart would do to him. In this Adagio, he seems reinvigorated, full of life and new hope. Boulez and Prof Henry-Louis de la Grange have been close since the 1940's, so Boulez is up to date with the latest research.

The rich sonorities become lighter, more exoteric, textures clearing, soaring upwards, quirky, elusive strings and woodwinds til recapitulation of the main theme, brass at the crest, then the "shepherd" theme heard from a distance, almost unadorned, rising forth. Then POW!!  the orchestra ignite in huge crescendi culminating in blasts of sound so intense you could be fooled into thinking there was a huge organ somewhere in that surge. It's astonishing, a scream of intensity and passion so great that it explodes the myth that Boulez is clinical. Cool headed, yes, but with intense emotional depth.  This continues with the quieter resolution. More restraint, but such feeling and commitment.  My goodness - to have been at Severance Hall the night this was recorded.  Congratulations to Cleveland, playing in absolute top form. What a night to remember! The Cleveland Orchestra is one of the finest in the world, Let's hope the locals appreciate their good fortune.

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